Archive for October, 2010

Jane Austen

October 19, 2010

I take the metro to Newcastle. I disembark at the central station and walk no more than a hundred or so paces to the Lit & Phil library where I return books and replenish my stock of borrowed whodunnits: an insurance  against the dragging of time in the next couple of weeks. On the train, I resort to reading the electronic page and duly open my Kindle. I have recently downloaded the novels of Jane Austen and I make a start on Sense and Sensibility, albeit some two hundred years after it was written. I pause to ponder this fact as the train stops at East Boldon station. A couple of girls roughly of the same age as Elinor and Marianne Dashwood prance down the platform, heels clacking, arm-in-arm, with bedenimmed bottoms bumping out of step.To pass the time, I wonder whether I could take an idea or a theme from the beginning of the novel and relate it to my world, to my experience in the here and now.  Reader, this ridiculous notion stayed with me not only all the way to Newcastle but also all the way back to Sunderland on my return journey.

Jane Austen

The title of the book, Sense and Sensibility, reflects the characters of the two sisters. Marianne is eager in everything, there being no moderation to either her joys or sorrows. In this regard, she is her mother’s daughter. The father dies and the ownership of their family home passes to her brother John and his very unpleasant wife Fanny. Both Marianne and her mother feel particularly wretched, since Fanny has arrived to take up her place as the mistress of the household. It is as if they egg one another on in their misery.

Elinor, her sister, has similar emotions and feelings about all this but, unlike Marianne, she knows how to govern them and keep them under control. So the two sisters develop very different experiences on the basis of identical raw emotional ingredients: those filtered through the sense of Elinor lead to a pragmatic handling of the situation; those filtered through the sensibilities of Marianne lead to what, two centuries later, might be regarded as a neurotic response.

I am now at Brockley Whins station on the return journey and I can see my way forward in the challenge that I have set myself. A couple of months ago my daughter left home to live abroad and I was very upset for several weeks. My task now is to do an Austen on that experience. I can see that I veered too close to the model of Marianne Dashwood. Normally, I regard myself as  being cast very much in the metal of Elinor. With hindsight, I can see that the Mariannesque response resulted in not much more than too many soggy tissues in overflowing waste bins. It is perhaps the stiff upper English lip that ensures sense will not degenerate into uncontrolled sensibility. I blame this temporary lapse of mine on too enthusiastic an attendance of 1970s encounter groups in my days as a postgrad student. I am guilty of having dabbled in North American humanistic psychology whilst simultaneously flirting with European existentialism when  I should have been content with the less volatile topics to be found in the philosophy of action, perhaps of the Oxford mould. More to the point, I should have been reading Jane Austen.


October 18, 2010

Yesterday I spent most of the morning preparing Sunday lunch. I made an effort, since we had invited a guest to share the meal with us. I started with a rather hearty cream of vegetable soup. Normally, I whizz the base of the soup in a processor before finishing it off with cream. This time, having picked up a tip from Jamie Oliver, I processed the veg before frying them briefly with garlic and onion.This certainly provided an interesting texture to the dish but it was not particularly subtle. I possibly used a little too much white wine in preparing my stock.


Cream of vegetable soup


The main course went a little better, I feel. I fried fish cakes in a pan and served them with a selection of Chinese vegetables stir fried in a wok. I put some good ingredients into the fish cakes: boiled cod fillets, mashed potatoes, chopped basil, chopped hard boiled eggs, lemon juice, grated nutmeg, seasoning and a couple of pinches of cayenne pepper. Having shaped the individual cakes, I rolled them in beaten egg and coated them in multigrain bread crumbs. They tasted delicious.


Ingredients for the fishcakes


For pudding, I made an apple crumble. I slipped some cinamon and grated lemon rind into the chopped apples and made sure they were plenty sweet enough. For the custard, I cheated: I bought a very nice tub of the stuff at my local supermarket.

Having glugged my way through a fair amount of red wine during the course of the day, I made sure that I drank plenty of fruit squash towards the end in order to avoid the thick head this morning, and I am happy to tell you that this strategy seems to have worked. This morning, I popped down to the doctor’s surgery to get a flu shot. The nurse told me that my arm might be stiff later today. I am doing a show at the Cup ‘n Spittle tonight, so I hope that works out ok in terms of playing the piano.

I want to finish the novel I am reading today (The Gaudy by J.I.M. Stewart) then I will take the latest bagful back to the Lit & Phil at Newcastle tomorrow and pick up a fresh batch. Talk to you later, my dear blogophiles.

The Huxwellian 21st century

October 15, 2010

Things have necessarily been quiet over this past week in terms my internet activity. The explanation is that I had a hardware problem with the power transformer plug for my ISP router. It was an interesting experience to see how I fared whilst becalmed in the cyberspatial doldrums. Anxiety gave way to boredom, although I did attempt to plug the gap with more extensive bouts of reading. I also watched a few TV cookery programmes. Some years ago, I used to spend a lot more time in the kitchen, conjuring up delectable little delights. For some reason, I stopped doing it. I am currently attempting to get back into the swing of culinary adventures, although I find that it is more challenging now that I need to keep more than half an eye on my weight. I’m not sure why I gravitate towards recipes involving oodles of double cream and butter, but somehow I do.

I missed the buzz of streaming my shows to Second Life while my internet was down. Yesterday, I played The Ragged Edge and thoroughly enjoyed myself. That was the first gig since Saturday at Helle’s Angels Club. I shall play my own little venue, Terra Fyrmusica on Saturday and then Cascadia Harmonics on Sunday, as usual. Cascadia is going to close for a virtual rebuild. Tishe, who runs the venue, feels that things have become stale and audience numbers have been dropping. I am told that this is happening across the virtual world and Krel has recently opined that the bloom of live music may have faded from the rose of Second Life gigs. I tend to play to such small audiences that I don’t think it will affect me too much. There has been some discussion about musicians with ‘edge’ not being able to pull in large audiences. I have not been mentioned as a musician with ‘edge’ and I am comfortable with that, at least for the time being. Part of me would like to be able to play melodious tunes on the digital grand piano in the virtual palm court of some splendid hotel of yesteryear. I would love to be able to do justice to the canon of the American Songbook (I am thinking of the sort of thing Rod Stewart has done in the latter phase of his musical career). However, as soon as I start to get comfortable with that notion a small voice nags away in the back of my mind. I have not produced any original music for a while now. Perhaps I will soon. Whilst I think it unlikely that I could manage razor sharp, something in the order of a schoolboy’s blunt penknife should be possible.

Speaking of knives, the scapel is about to be applied to public and social spending in the UK. It doesn’t surprise me. England is no longer a significant maker-of-stuff on the world stage. When I was a postgrad student in Sheffield in the 1970s, it was still possible to hear the pounding of the mills at night, as the world famous Sheffield steel was rolled out. When I later moved up to Sunderland on the Wear, it was possible to see the last of the big ships being constructed and repaired in the yards. There was still a huge coalfield in the Durham region. All that vanished during the decade of the 1980s. And so with production moving to China, Asia and other regions of the previously under-developed world it is perhaps unsurprising that England, the leader of the industrial revolution, should be one of the first to exit as a post-industrial economy. The spending cuts that are due to be announced by the UK government next week will involve staggeringly huge numbers. I grew up as a child in the late 1940s and 1950s in what was quaintly called the years of austerity; basically, the country although victorious from WW2, was totally bankrupt. Life was dour: socks were darned, cuffs and collars were turned, drab economical clothes were handed down from older to younger children. There were ration books with coupons for food, sweets and tobacco.

In the UK, in the foreseeable future, I think that many of our city centres will die as retail business grinds to a halt. The boarded up shop fronts will make it hard to maintain any semblance of civic pride. Anger within the population will lead to disillusionment, especially over politics and politicians. Even if the Labour party does well out of the backlash, the books still have to be balanced. The burden of national debt will not go away. At these times, it is prudent to avoid extreme political solutions, especially those that simplistically look to pass the blame on scapegoats, be they shady bankers, greedy entrepreneurs or convenient minority groups within the existing population.

The concept of the working class is, even now, in the process of semantic disintegration. The strong trades unions of yesteryear retain significance for social historians, but drift towards irrelevance in the contemporary world: there is scant power in a trades union if, in point of fact, hardly any folk are plying that trade. The middle class has traditionally been drawn from senior management in industry, together with those in the main professions. Although there is a rough pecking order, one might lump together accountants, lawyers, doctors, teachers, professors and the like. If the definition of the middle class is extended to what used to be called ‘white collar’, then we may safely bring in quite a few from the civil service and local government. Those middle class who are parasitic on industrial production will, obviously, decline in number. The others are likely to be dependent upon the public purse in one way or another. This purse, so we are told, is more or less empty. The middle class will thus shrink massively.

One might speculate as to what musical genre will be best suited to the coming trials. I have always thought punk to be very close to childish rage, a manifestation of an angry and aggressive id, to draw upon our friend Dr. Freud. The blues would seem to be tied more closely to the sorrow born of too much hard work and exploitation. Although there will be sorrow, I am not sure that the cause is going to be overworking. Maybe the post-industrial blues will be electronic in nature. Something infinitely repetitive and soothing, to while away the endless hours of luxury-deprived boredom. Does Phillip Glass come to mind?

Society will need its opiate, I fear. I don’t think alcohol is up to the job (beer for the workers and  gin & tonic for the middle classes is an image that will fade as the sun finally sets on the industrial age of post-Victorian England). My guess is that a drug will be manufactured that is cheap to make, safe, and will maintain the population in a contented and somewhat soporific state.  Of course, there may at first be outrage. In the end it will be seen as a sensible solution to the problems raised by ever more strident and petutulant demands for the legalisation of cannabis. An essentially medical rhetoric drawing upon the pseudo-psychological lexicon of mood enhancement terms (see Abnormal Psch. 101)  should be enough to placate the more obstreperous members of the House of Commons.

Progress in this direction may come to be taken as evidence that we are drifting closer to Brave New World, as opposed to 1984. However, the number of surveyance  cameras on our streets and in our public buildings has increased exponentially since the year 1984, and the burgeoning sales of large flat-screen TVs can only be described as Orwellian. Perhaps the future will be a cross between the two. Yes, the 21st century is starting to feel decidedly Huxwellian.

Magnificent magnificat

October 6, 2010

Last night I went to Durham Cathedral to hear Sir John Eliot Gardiner conduct1 the Monteverdi vespers. This was quite an event. We (the audience) queued in a very long and orderly line snaking all the way around the green outside this imposing 12th century building, in the dusk. Eventually we assembled. There were three choirs, the English Baroque soloists, and His Majestys Sagbutts and Cornetts.

I sat in the transept which was the seating that is provided on the left arm of the cross, as it were. There was a huge circular stone column between me and the orchestra, so the sound reached my ears via a deflection from the roof; the roof was so high that it was1 beyond my ordinary field of vision and I had to crane my head back in order to see the arches which connected the columns of stone. The choir did move around from time to time during this evening-long performance. Once they faced me, in the transept, and at that moment the quality of sound greatly improved. Generally, however, the sound was muddy. It was as if the band was using too much reverb in the mix, to apply a contemporary electronic effects analogy to the cathedral’s acoustics.

The degree of echo was sufficient to make it almost impossible to follow the Latin lyrics, even though they were published in the programme with an English translation alongside. A sung consonant has little chance of survival in such a breath-takingly high stone-roofed vault.

I will say one thing for Monteverdi, he gets a lot of musical mileage out of one line of lyric.


October 5, 2010

[Note: This post is a couple of days late being assembled. I switched to the new Beta version of Internet Explorer 9 and found that I could not edit the text of my bloog on the WordPress website. I subsequently downloaded the Mozilla Firefox browser and it works perfectly]

At last I seem to be getting back into some moderately serious cooking. Today I made a meal for my friends Tony and Costello. I started by cutting some salad leaves from the lettuces I have growing in my garden. These have been wonderful over the summer months but they are starting to bolt now; I think this will have been the harvest’s swan song. I added a few slices of red and yellow peppers for colour, some chopped spring onions, and cubes of pear for interest. I grated a sprinkling of lemon rind onto the plates and made the dressing with olive oil, lemon juice and a good pinch of Colman’s English mustard powder.

Assembling the ingredients

For the main course, I made coq-au-vin-blanc. I have a large Le Creuset pan that takes a 1.5 kg chicken perfectly. I make this with carrots, parsnips, shallots and garlic. Once the vegetables have been peeled I fry them in the pan, take them out, fry the chicken briefly, put the veg back in around the chicken and then fill up with boiling stock. I put foil over the breast and transfer the pot to the oven for half an hour. Then I remove the foil, whack in a bunch of button mushrooms, and stick it back for another half hour or there abouts. The stock I made with white wine and water, onion, carot, and celery. I made a muslin herb bag and cut the herbs from my garden for this (rosemary, sage, thyme, and bay leaf).

A lot of peeling and chopping goes on (shallots)

I also cooked some potatoes with a full head of garlic which I broke into peeled cloves. I mashed the potatoes with the garlic and a little butter. I carved the chicken and plated it up with the mashed potato and the vegetables that had cooked with the bird. I made a gravy by reducing the stock in the pan. Normally, I would have thickened it with a little flower in butter pellets but this time I used a small amount of corn starch.

For the pudding, I made some meringues and sandwiched them together in pairs with a filling of fromage frais mixed with marscapone cheese (I flavoured this with a teaspoon of vanilla essence). I plated the meringues in soup bowls with some fresh raspberries and blackberries. For good measure, I put a spoonful of the cheese filling on top of the fruit, too.

The wonderful shape of home-made meringues

For once, everything went according to plan, and it was absolutely delicious. It was necessary to devote most of the day to shopping and preparing the ingredients. I made lists and worked methodically through the various stages of the cooking, in a relaxed fashion. In the evening, I did drink rather a lot of red wine, I have to admit.