The news and other events…

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July 2017…one hundred years ago….

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June did not rid the world of May…

So the month shifted from May to June, but the surprise General Election did not clear the political slate, nor did it provide the Prime Minister with the strong mandate she desired to pull the UK through the Brexit process….May is still Prime Minister of the UK and many British citizens continue to ask why politics is so warped given the results and clear shifts in voting behaviour.

Many ask why we don’t have PR [Proportional Representation] as opposed to the “First-Past-The-Post” system which allows the candidate with the greatest number of votes to win the seat, even if they only achieve one solitary vote over their opponent.  This method means that, overall, the votes cast do not result in the allocation of parliamentary seats representing the wishes of the entire electorate; the total number of votes cast for the Green Party, for example, would provide greater numbers of Green MPs to influence the decisions taken in Parliament as well as working at a local level to deliver changing attitudes within their constituency. Although Green Party voting support has dropped since 2015, it was still the choice of well over half a million adults who bothered to vote. The bizarre reality is that the 292,316 votes cast for the Northern Ireland Democratic Unionist Party [DUP] gave them TEN seats in Parliament whilst those 525,435 Green voters are forced to make do with one solitary MP.

The situation with the DUP has historically been a useful example to illustrate the distorted allocation of parliamentary seats, to show how some voters’ choices, despite their numbers across the entire nation, are not being appreciated by the First-Past-The-Post system.  However, the current political scenario with Theresa May being free to draw upon the DUP to support her minority government, underlines how ridiculous and totally undemocratic this traditional counting method really is.  With their ten unearned Parliamentary seats the DUP can vote for all measures put forward by a minority government, and that is what they will do to earn their billion pound bribe.  There is a sense of despair across the nation but it’s clear that there are many who wish to re-energise the fight…Of course politics provides various fields of battle but for ordinary citizens the one which counts is the election process.  As I work through the decades gathering life experience I know I am repeating myself; education must include learning about the democratic process and why it is so very important to understand that there are very few corners of our lives not touched by politics.

Having studied English Social History at “O” level in the late 1970s I am grateful that the group into which I was placed at school was led by the very inspiring history teacher “Mr Lee” who cleverly revealed how present-day politics tied in with the fight for the franchise in the 19th Century; the Chartists,  Tolpuddle Martyrs and the Co-Operative Movement were meaningful details which have remained bubbling away on the hob which is my brain over the last 40 years.  Both “Distress and Discontent” and that slogan “We must educate our masters”  still ring through my head as many argue about Brexit, the reasons for that result last year and why so many of the potential electorate repeatedly fail to claim their vote…I suggest future history books will continue to be able to draw these connections regardless of the outcome, although perhaps in the long-term it will be so evident that future history students will understand why the battlefield was so-shaped in the 21st Century.

This month of June should receive more than a passing mention in future history books, not only for presenting the expected politics surrounding the General Election on the 8th, but also for the shocking news stories which delivered sudden, and very deadly blows to ordinary people living ordinary lives; citizens and tourists walking along London Bridge and enjoying Saturday night drinks with their friends, and those who went to bed in their tower block home never to see the new dawn.  Politically-controlled decisions were clearly at the heart of the spread of those deadly flames which closed the lives of 80 or more, trapped in a building where running costs were the biggest factor despite fire safety legislation and building regulations which should not have allowed such a tragedy to unfold in a modern capital city.  The frame which is politics touches everyone; for the poorest it would seem that this frame is often made of razor wire, whereas for the wealthy it can be as soft as the silken fabrics associated with Versailles.  A couple of days ago a, clearly wealthy, “friend” on social media posted some dubious research about people who complain…the gist of which was that anyone who complains is just a pain in the arse.  In recent years I’ve learnt the power of not posting a comment…although I am still tempted to point out that for whose lives were placed in Grenfell Tower a few more complaints being heard might have meant that a young mother and her baby would have survived for mother to watch her 6 month-old move from crawling to running in one of London’s beautiful green spaces…for that mother to enjoy her baby’s babbling to become speech and for that little girl to grow up to become who she was going to be, to reveal what she might have had to give to her community and the world.

My inspiring history teacher Mr Lee did not lecture us convent girls, but in his methodical and clear manner he helped teach us to think…He was clearly elderly in 1977 so I’m sure his retirement ended possibly decades ago, but I can still hear his voice and I’m sure he would have been able to lead any group of teenagers, and adults for that matter, to understand where politics and history met in London in June 2017.

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May ends…how will June greet May?

So there’s a riddle to close the month…

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Spring….Garden Notebook

Loveliest of trees, the cherry now

Is hung with bloom along the bough,

And stands about the woodland ride

Wearing white for Eastertide.

 

Now, of my threescore years and ten,

Twenty will not come again,

And take from seventy springs a score,

It only leaves me fifty more.

 

And since to look at things in bloom

Fifty springs are little room,

About the woodlands I will go

To see the cherry hung with snow.

 

AE Housman

 

Such a wonderful poem combining language and great visuals to convey how brief our time is on this planet…how many springs do any of us have left? How many cherry trees will we have the pleasure to witness in their colourful burst of fresh life?

I love spring; watching bare branches sprout green shoots is surely to witness a miracle?

This year I’ve been fortunate to be free to watch a vast array of plants and trees going through this process and have discovered swathes of wild flowers of such variety to create a substantial catalogue in my private notebook. There has also been a glorious collection of traditional domesticated spring flowers; in January I spotted a very small cluster of snow drops as they broke through the untidy layers of last year’s abandoned foliage…a few hyacinths returned from the dead along the scrappy driveway whilst the bright shock of yellow from the bank of daffodils announced March and defied the “lion” as the wild weather shook the garden.

Tulips with petals that can only be described as “raspberry ripple” presented a view which could almost be tasted…Having the time to stop and look closely, to really examine the structure as well as colour is a feast, perhaps exaggerated after the bleakness of winter….but there’s no denying a beautiful sight.

 

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What is home?

Many thoughts to compose…on its way!

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Batter before the fast…history delivered via a simple recipe

Mix a pancake

Stir a pancake

Pop it in the pan.

Fry the pancake,

Toss the pancake,

Catch it if you can!

 

A late Easter means “Pancake Day” doesn’t clash with Valentine’s…pancakes supplying a moveable feast which always seem an odd ingredient to mix with the blood-red bouquets and gold-foiled chocolates brightening that non-negotiable day celebrating lovers in the darkness of mid-February.  In theory a late start to Lent should be better received by the faithful, providing a longer period in which to recover from Christmas and the likely excesses of dried fruit and fat; mince pies, plum pudding and festive cake deliver millions of calories after hearty roast meats with their traditional greasy trimmings, not to mention the Stilton and port wine.  In reality there might be cause to bring the “fast” forward to Epiphany for those following the British Christmas!

As a child I always enjoyed eating pancakes although I thought them too simple a recipe to be able to claim the day when the ingredients had to be used up before the Lenten Fast. Being brought up as a [sort of] Roman Catholic I learnt early how Shrove Tuesday led immediately into the darkness of Ash Wednesday and a nasty time called Lent.  Decades later my research into food history confirmed the linguistic connection with lentils which, as a thinking but careful child, I’d never dared ask about knowing I’d have been called a stupid fool by my mother.  However, the lentils of Lent must be assigned their own pot for discussion another day in order to let pre-Lenten pancakes reveal something of their history, and, therefore, appreciate how rich the recipe might have been in former times, and thus their claim to be the food before the fast.

ingredients for pancakes (the flat variety as opposed to the thicker but fluffy American version, referred to as “hot cakes” by one of my Japanese students, a label echoed in a hotel in Havana on their English menu…the scene remains an example of “lost in translation” because, when my husband tried to order “hot cakes” for breakfast the puzzled waitress returned bearing a slice of warmed-up gateau):

plain flour, eggs, milk (some recipes admit this can be milk and water) pinch of salt, fat or oil for frying, plus sugar and lemon, or jam, honey or syrup for serving.

Firstly, the basic metal surface of historic frying pans would have demanded far more fat for frying than a modern non-stick utensil and eggs were often much smaller, especially if laid by pullets; a dozen eggs would make a far lower yield than our regulated “medium-size”.  Eggs have, of course, from ancient times carried cultural symbolism as well as their scientific value as representative of life and re-birth; I recall my first official encounter with diet away from cookery and biology books whilst studying “Anthropological Perspectives on Food” at university.  To my horror I discovered how, in some African tribes pregnant women were denied eggs as it was feared their unborn babies would grow to be greedy if they received this symbolic nourishment in the womb.   In European society eggs and milk have traditionally been ascribed high value as foods specially suited for invalids and infants, loaded with a perceived “digestibility and gentleness”.  On a practical note, milk soon went off without refrigeration, hence the widespread production of cheese to convert fresh milk into a controllable, portable basic foodstuff usually with a shelf-life extending over several years. In the Middle East and Asia this milk was often converted into yoghurt, perhaps due to the speed of the production process which would have suited nomadic peoples; cheeses designed for a longer life require months or years maturing in a suitable environment.  There is an entire history to the finely-milled wheat flour which we probably take for granted as a cheap store-cupboard basic; those plump 1.5kg paper bags waiting to be re-formed into all manner of carbohydrate-laden savouries and sweets, as well as our present-day understanding of “pancakes” in their flat and puffed-up manifestations.  Medieval peasant populations for whom the Christian Church was as much the law as their Lord of the Manor and monarch, would have regarded fine wheat flour as a high- status desirable, most likely limited to the banquets of their “betters”.  The fact that impoverished peasants would queue at their Master’s back door to receive the “trencher” bread plates on which quantities of meat and gravy had been served at banquets for the already well-fed, must surely reveal levels of hunger as well as any devotion to the niceties of a social order in which these, albeit used, edible utensils were eagerly accepted as valuable gifts.  Grain was the European staple before the arrival of potatoes from the New World, with both wheat and barley featuring in ancient “frumenty” puddings, although these stodgy concoctions were special-occasion dishes too.  On the subject of staple crops, the Romans had, in fact, introduced rice as they marched across Europe but the necessity for flooded fields limited its production to suitable areas; in Britain rice was a foreign import which did find its way into milk puddings presented as part of the huge menu served at Medieval banquets.  Researching food in history reveals feasting on a scale which even present-day consumers would find OTT, but it’s crucial to appreciate how the participants at the feast belonged to particular, limited social groups; unlike the feasting, fasting was a shared experience imposed on the entire community, although how much those existing on an impoverished diet would notice the restrictions is another matter, given their limited food choices.                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                 This all-too-brief brief analysis represents a mere crumb in the history surrounding pancake ingredients but, hopefully, serves to assist in laying the foundations for an understanding of how the basics required to form batter were recognised as “high status” foods and thus a target for those setting down religious law.

As for the simple lemon and sugar topping; these ingredients definitely belong to the era of trade and imperial conquest; sea voyages brought citrus fruit while imperial plantations supplied the cheap sugar which kept the Victorian working class topped up with a regular supply of hot sweetened tea.  At the same time the mass publication of cook books for the middle classes propagated the perceived need for a vast array of sugary cakes and bakes to accompany their afternoon tea; this baking tradition was a continuation of the consumption of spicy and fruity treats which had once been limited to travelling fairs, accessible only on feast days and “Holy Days”.  Oranges and lemons, although exotic, were more transportable than many other fruit; being colourful and tangy must have added to their appeal in the centuries before any mention of Vitamin C and health-giving properties.  The history of lemons in Britain introduces them as an expensive treasure, worthy for presentation to a monarch, whilst the oranges carried by Nell Gwynn probably helped carry her name and reputation into the future.

Thus the mixing and frying of a simple batter provides a bigger platter on which the history of food may be served.  The present-day habit of supermarkets to present a “Pancake Day” shelf display suggests that maple syrup was always there at the family celebration…golden syrup maybe, but not this imported product now so beloved of those seeking “clean eating”.  Maple syrup is definitely an import from “across the pond” which might have been found in specialised grocer’s stores before they all closed down with the expansion of supermarkets.  There’s a chapter to write on this which is in my notebook; from an anthropological, political and environmental viewpoint, maple syrup has buckets to offer the food historian and scientist.  In reality no ingredient should be disregarded, from the fine white wheat flour which represents what “flour” is for most consumers to the pinch of salt and the sprinkling of sugar.

 

Last week I decided to experiment with “gram flour” to create savoury pancakes; exploring the local Gurkha grocery store for Nepalese tea I had spotted a colourful bag containing a half kilo of these finely-milled chick peas.  A small quantity of gram flour, olive oil and cold tap water whisked together produced a wonderfully light crispy pancake layer on which to lay various vegetables fried gently in olive oil…a delicious meal which didn’t require any eggs or dairy ingredients, and certainly a long way from the egg, milk and butter pancakes of Shrove Tuesday.  With gram flour boasting its gluten-free credentials I would dare to suggest that these pancakes can feature in the Lenten diet without breaking any fasting rules….except that which tries to stop the enjoyment of food within the bleakness of religious austerity.

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Progress…the horror and sadness finding out it was never real

Where is the world now? As I read the news and watch yet another horror unfold, the bloody sandwiched between political lunacy, my mind automatically retrieves memories of growing up as a child desperate to understand the world; the idea that the planet was steering its course on an automatic line towards progress was a solid “fact” in my childhood. I’m pretty sure it was the space race and that “one small step for mankind” on the surface of the moon which constituted the backbone to this notion. Studying history at university I enjoyed the challenge of trawling through original documents which illustrated times that were far more cruel, less meritocratic, and where the accident of one’s birth determined whether bed-time was hungry, and whether there were any covers on that bed.

to be continued…

 

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So hope for a great sea change on the far side of revenge…

EXTRACT from “The Cure At Troy” by  Seamus Heaney

“Human beings suffer,

They torture one another,

They get hurt and get hard.

No poem or play or song

Can fully right a wrong

Inflicted and endured.

 

The innocent in gaols

Beat on their bars together.

A hunger-striker’s father

Stands in the graveyard dumb.

The police widow in veils

Faints at the funeral home.

 

History says, don’t hope

On this side of the grave.

But then, once in a lifetime

The longed-for tidal wave

Of justice can rise up,

And hope and history rhyme.

 

So hope for a great sea-change

On the far side of revenge.

Believe that further shore

Is reachable from here.

Believe in miracle

And cures and healing wells.

 

Call miracle self-healing:

The utter, self-revealing

Double-take of feeling.

If there’s fire on the mountain

Or lightning and storm

And a god speaks from the sky

 

That means someone is hearing

The outcry and the birth-cry

Of new life at its term.”

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Animals for the Advent calendar: The Donkey

When fishes flew and forests walked

And figs grew upon thorn,

Some moment when the moon was blood

Then surely I was born.

 

With monstrous head and sickening cry

And ears like errant wings,

The devil’s walking parody

On all four-footed things.

 

The tattered outlaw of the earth,

Of ancient crooked will;

Starve, scourge, deride me: I am dumb,

I keep my secret still.

 

Fools! For I also had my hour;

One far fierce hour and sweet:

There was shout before my ears,

And palms before my feet.

 

GK Chesterton (29 May 1874 – 14 June 1936) paints this wonderful image which, in my mind, combines the physical presence of this beast of burden with a history dating into ancient times.

This month I learnt about a small charity working in Egypt to help the many horses, donkeys and camels which serve the tourist industry around the Pyramids. The charity called “Prince Fluffy Kareem” came up in my newsfeed as they endeavoured to gain votes via Ebay; the cash prize was to be awarded to the charity with the greatest number of votes from customers with an Ebay account.

Wanting to find out more I put their rather unusual name into the search engine; the time spent watching their video footage provided living proof that miracles really can happen…animals entering their compound suffering injuries, disease and severe malnutrition were treated by this small dedicated team, supported by local staff and veterinary professionals brought in for specific cases.   The “before and after” films were seemingly miraculous transformations, proof that individual care appropriate for each case could bring an animal back from a living death; crippled walking skeletons morphed into perfect specimens with glossy coats, whilst their powerful bodies employed muscular limbs to run happily on the desert sands.

However, what struck me was how these horse “rescuers”  understood the issues behind the various and often unsavoury medical problems suffered by these working animals; anyone visiting the “Prince Fluffy Kareem” website for the first time will be aware that there is no mention of blame;  the accusatory finger can only be pointed at human poverty framed by a very harsh physical environment.  Lack of financial resources is the underlying cause of disease and starvation; locals barely making a living will be trying to feed their families first, their animals only managing poor ranking. This might sound bizarre to those of us living in a different environment, surely the business owner must protect his assets?

Egypt is a country traditionally bound by low wages, poor infrastructure and no social security. Lack of education serves to multiply the effects of harsh conditions; traditional remedies and old wives tales may be well-rooted but, in practice, are completely unfounded as treatments, carrying a strong possibility of more injury or on-going sickness for the animal.

Ignorance often breeds more ignorance and what we might want to label as cruelty….However, lack of knowledge as to how to access up-to-date information cannot be blamed on folk without books or the internet; although internet cafes are to be found on dusty unpaved Egyptian streets they are not heaving with folk googling…even the modest charges for an hour or two are well beyond the pockets of ordinary workers who may only bring home pence after a full working day. As with so many industries , that serving tourists is open to the vagaries of both Mother and Human Natures; whilst Mother Nature may only play the friendly game for a few weeks before sending a terror, humans tend to want things cheap. Of course these two “pillars” also exist in the political map; Egypt’s own crises are far greater than hits the headlines in Europe, the deposing of one leader did not create “happy ever after”; political uncertainty affected the numbers of tourists willing to travel, creating a direct knock-on effect for all those whose living is based around Egypt’s ancient monuments.

Working animals are assets to nurture but when there is so little care for a human population it’s no surprise to find the voiceless creatures falling victim to hard times.

This week the Prince Fluffy Kareem page featured a frail donkey greatly in need of medical attention and rest; what was also made clear was that the owner couldn’t manage without his little worker due to his own diabetes which was affecting his feet. Apart from attending to the medical and nutritional needs of this “tattered outlaw of the earth” the charity’s director pointed out how a human suffering diabetes needs good quality shoes and clear instructions about foot care. Neither of these are automatically available to an old man living in hard times. Making sandwiches for visitors to the Pyramids is like making sandwiches anywhere; fresh ingredients must be purchased and transported; if there aren’t many customers the takings will be low; not much chance of buying the quality footwear needed to protect his feet.

In a land where plastic flip flops and sandals are the norm poor folk will envisage budgeting for leather shoes even if their health requires such an investment; human health often requires professional advice and guidance…a luxury in many countries especially one which has gone through turbulent times. Transport by donkey has a long tradition dating far back into biblical times; with the continuing upheaval and poverty, donkey-power has much to offer.

So what of his poor little donkey? Huge efforts are being made to restore it to health…and to source quality shoes for the owner; credit to the many humans following the story who were all offering to fund the shoes. Not much of a “miracle” maybe, but a tale of goodness.

Having visited Egypt and seen the realities of life for both humans and their equine labourers, discovering the existence of the charitable organisation “Prince Fluffy Kareem” underlined everything positive about humanity working for good.. Learning about their direct involvement with the community makes for compelling reading; listening as well as looking is key and they have created a sense of trust with many of the animal owners. Whilst the video footage sets the scene, for almost miraculous recovery, it’s not shy of revealing the harsh truths and sadness of loss when injuries, disease and suffering are brought to a humane close.

[photo + link to come]

 

 

 

 

 

Now dark November closes to reveal the brightness of Christmas…

 

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