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The collected opinions of an august and aristocratic personage who, despite her body having succumbed to the ravages of time, yet retains the keen intellect, mordant wit and utter want of tact for which she was so universally lauded in her younger days. Being of a generation unequal to the mysterious demands of the computing device, Lady Bracknell relies on the good offices of her Editor for assistance with the technological aspects of her journal.

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Location: Bracknell Towers

Sunday, February 24, 2008

Othello in Earnest

Displaying the propensity of the majority of her possessions for cloaking themselves in invisibility whenever their presence is desired, the slim volume from which the following pastiche is taken has been eluding Lady Bracknell's grasp for several years. Now that it has shown itself - and before it scuttles back once more into its shadowy hiding place - Lady Bracknell has insisted that her editor transcribe Perry Pontac's clever words at once for the amusement of this blog's readers. The volume from which these few pages have been extracted may be purchased from this online retail establishment.

LADY BRABANTIO and OTHELLO , just after tea. They speak in the distinctive accents of, respectively, Lady Bracknell and John Worthing.

LADY BRABANTIO: Excellent cucumber sandwiches, Mr Othello.

OTHELLO: I'm so pleased you enjoyed them, Lady Brabantio.

LADY BRABANTIO: And now, to our business. You wish to marry my daughter Desdemona, I believe.

OTHELLO: Yes, Lady Brabantio, very much so.

LADY BRABANTIO: I see. In that case I have a few questions to put to you. (She takes out her notebook and pencil.) What is the source of your income?

OTHELLO: I am a soldier, Lady Brabantio - from an old military family.

LADY BRABANTIO: (taking notes) Ah.

OTHELLO: I am, I'm afraid, often out of Venice: slaughtering the infidel, sacking and burning towns, beheading prisoners.

LADY BRABANTIO: I am pleased to hear it. A man who remains at home can do incalculable harm. My husband Lord Brabantio is a case in point. The more domestic he becomes, the more savage his behaviour seems to be. And now, your property.

OTHELLO: Two main residences, Lady Brabantio. A bachelor flat near the Bridge of Sighs and a large Gothic mansion on the Rialto.

LADY BRABANTIO: That is most satisfactory. And were you born in one of the great houses on the Canal, or did you rise from the rural simplicity of a country seat?

OTHELLO: (reluctantly) I'm afraid I was born... elsewhere, Lady Brabantio.

LADY BRABANTIO: (surprised) Elsewhere, Mr Othello?

OTHELLO: Yes. (Evasively) Rather far away, in fact.

LADY BRABANTIO: (disapprovingly) Rather far away? And where, precisely, 'far away' were you born?

OTHELLO: In ... in Africa, Lady Brabantio.

LADY BRABANTIO: (Lady Bracknell-like) Africa?

OTHELLO: Yes. In a tiny village in Africa. Kajabufu. I was born in a small military fortification as it happens, a simple hut made of mud and dung; my nappy a banana-leaf, my rattle a quiver of poisoned arrows, my cradle a sandbag.

LADY BRABANTIO: (even more Lady Bracknell-like) A sandbag?

OTHELLO: Yes, Lady Brabantio. There in a clearing in the great jungle where the she-elephant suckles her young.

LADY BRABANTIO: (on a rising note of disapproval) And how, if I may ask, did you come to be raised on a sandbag in a hut in a clearing where the she-elephant suckles her young? It seems most improbable.

OTHELLO: My parents were Africans, Lady Brabantio - as am I.

LADY BRABANTIO: (appalled) Indeed? Not blackamoors?

OTHELLO: Quite. Father was a warrior-chief, Mother his favourite wife. (Shakespeareanly) Haply, for I am black...

LADY BRABANTIO: Not happily at all, Mr Othello. I had assumed, from your appearance, that you had recently been basking in the sun at one of our well-known seaside resorts. Indeed, this puts, if I may say so, an entirely new complexion on the matter. Yet, let us continue. I have almost completed my questions, and I always finish what I begin, especially if there is no reason to do so. That is the meaning of thoroughness.

She takes up her pencil.

Now, your education. Which of our great universities did you attend?

OTHELLO: None, I'm afraid. No formal education at all. My childhood was spent climbing the banyan tree, sporting naked in the sunshine, foraging for nuts and grubs with 'Maputu' the wart hog.

LADY BRABANTIO: (not impressed) I see. And as an adult?

OTHELLO: As a soldier I have had many remarkable adventures which Desdemona, dear girl, has often begged me to recount. I have known disasters as well: sold into slavery, shipwrecked on the Isle of Wight for several weeks, and I have been scalped - on two different occasions - by the dreaded Norijwanee tribe of Sumatra.

LADY BRABANTIO: To be scalped once, Mr Othello, may be regarded as a misfortune; to be scalped twice looks like hairlessness.

OTHELLO: (continuing his story, trying to impress her) In Kashina, I was nearly eaten by a lion who sprang upon me in the most unexpected manner.

Lady Brabantio remains unmoved.

It was a fierce Nemean lion, Lady Brabantio.

LADY BRABANTIO: The lion is immaterial. Mr Othello, I confess your history has filled me with disquiet. A life such as yours, with a person such as yourself, is hardly the destiny I have in mind for Desdemona.

OTHELLO: But what is it you advise me to do? I adore the divine Desdemona.

LADY BRABANTIO: I advise you to quit your suit and to avoid my daughter for ever. Desdemona has a noble nature and will be certain to forget you almost instantly.

OTHELLO: I see. Ah, the pity of it, if I may say so Lady Brabantion, the pity of it.

LADY BRABANTIO: Mr Othello, you seem, if I'm not mistaken, to be displaying signs of considerable self-esteem.

OTHELLO: (sadly) On the contrary, Lady Brabantio, I've now realised for the first time in my life the vital importance of being burnished.

They freeze in tableau. Black-out.

Friday, February 22, 2008

What I did on my day off...

Create your own demotivational posters at despair.com. They'll even sell you a printed version.

The Editor

Replies to emails

No. No I haven't booked a room for tomorrow's meeting. I thought it would be a lot more fun if we just trailed listlessly around the office for six hours on the off-chance that a room might suddenly become available.

Yes, you're quite right. I have completely changed my mind about the technical detail of the twelve-page advice I sent you two weeks ago. The hypothetical comparator I referred to in the post-telephone-conference email wasn't intended to refer to an entirely different case in which both sides had behaved in a straightforward and uncontentious manner but was instead - as you correctly deduced - a veiled reference to the case in hand. How clever of you to notice. And, yes, when I change my professional advice, I do prefer to do so by vague implication rather than by definitive and unequivocal statement. This is because I so enjoy returning from a day off to read half a dozen emails in which the three of you have wound one another up into devising increasingly bizarre and panic-stricken theories about what I might have been implying. It would have spoiled all my fun had one of you just phoned me on receipt of my email to check whether the hypothetical comparator was anything more sinister than just a, erm, hypothetical comparator. A hypothetical comparator which, moreover, you had asked me to supply during our telephone conference. No, really. It's fine. I'm perfectly calm. It's not as though there are serious amounts of money stake, after all.

Ah, yes. You seem to have missed the section of the email in which I made it clear that I was only asking for the moment whether you would be free to attend in April. You know, the bit which said that the decision as to date and location had been made in today's meeting, and that further administrative and logistical information would be forthcoming at a later date when the relevant decisions had been made. So, no: right now this minute I don't know whether there will be a parking space there for you, or how many materials you might or might not be expected to take with you. It's flattering that you perceive me to be omniscient, but I'm afraid I have yet to perfect my scrying technique.

The Editor

Sunday, February 17, 2008

My absolutely favourite thing to do with beetroot

Last time the Farmers' Market was in evidence, I bought a bag of three beetroot. Last night, I wrapped them in foil, sat them on a baking tray, and bunged the tray on the bottom shelf of the oven while my dinner was cooking. For want of space and energy, I left them in the oven while it was cooling and didn't get them out until this afternoon when I peeled them and cut them into bite-size pieces.

I prefer baking beetroots to boiling them, because the juice is all contained in the foil, so there is less chance of my accidentally decorating the kitchen in that rather worrying intruder-gone-berserk-with-electric-carving-knife style. Not that I actually possess an electric carving knife, you understand, having been vegetarian for over twenty years.

Anyway, this most excellent recipe comes from Leslie Forbes' Recipes From The Indian Spice Trail. Published in 1994 to accompany a long-forgotten BBC Radio 3 series of the same name, and purchased by me in a remainders book shop because it contains a recipe for beetroot. (Recipes for beetroot which don't involve slipping slices of it into a pool of malt vinegar are few and far between.)

You can - and I have - use those vacuum packs of baby beetroots for this, in which case you'll need a packet and a half. If you're using proper fresh beetroot, you'll need three. Unless you find one the size of a football, I suppose. But I don't think the quantity of beetroot is particularly crucial.

In addition to your beetroot, you will need:

3 tbls oil
2 onions, sliced thinly
4 garlic cloves, crushed
a 2" piece of ginger*, half grated and half cut into julienne
1/2 tsp ground turmeric
1 - 11/2 tsps cayenne pepper
1 can chopped tomatoes
2 cans kidney beans**, throughly rinsed
3/4 tsp salt

Fry the onions until caramel brown, stirring often. Add the garlic and the grated ginger and cook until softened. Stir in the turmeric and cayenne and let sizzle for a few seconds. When they smell less raw, add tomatoes, kidney beans, beetroot and salt. Simmer, half-covered, for about 20 minutes for the flavours to blend, adding the ginger julienne for the last 10 minutes.

[If you're anything like me, your back will be hurting so much by this time, that you will need to leave the pan on the stove and sit down with a few painkillers. This is why I have good-quality, heavy-based pans: they can be left to their own devices on a low heat without the contents burning to the bottom.]

Once you are somewhat recovered, and almost ready to serve, heat 1 -2 tbls walnut oil (if you have it: if not, use something less exotic) in a small pan over a medium heat. Brown a handful of walnut pieces in the oil, then add 1 tsp cumin seeds and 1 tsp paprika. When the spices are brown and aromatic, tip everything in to the pan of beans and beetroot.

Serve with whichever carbohydrate you have the strength to prepare.

The Editor

* Did you know you can freeze fresh ginger? This saves you from having to buy the smallest, knobbliest bit which is about 90% peel to 10% flesh. You can buy a big, plump hand, cut it into pieces of the size you will be using, and take one out of the freezer when you start cooking. You will be able to peel it within a matter of minutes. But don't leave it too long, or your attempts at peeling will reduce the whole thing to a sodden, grey mush.

If you live near one of those useful Middle Eastern grocery shops which sells bunches of coriander of the approximate dimensions of half a dozen red roses, you can chop the whole lot up, scoop it into a plastic bag, and freeze it. When a recipe calls for the addition of chopped coriander at the last moment, just grab a handful out of the freezer and sprinkle it into the pan. It will defrost immediately on contact with the hot contents of the pan. As will frozen, grated parmesan, as it happens.

** I refuse to feel guilty about buying kidney beans in cans, because kidney beans take forever to cook. However, if you do fancy spending several hours surrounded by steam and purple scum, I would recommend that you use your biggest pan and cook a whole packet of beans in one go. Once they're cool, you can decant the quantity for which you don't have an immediate need and freeze them. I've tried this, and it works really well.

Saturday, February 16, 2008

Say hello, wave goodbye

Regular readers will be aware that - contrary old bat that I am - I find signs of aging, in myself and others, fascinating rather than revolting. I am the advertising man's worst nightmare: I cannot be gulled into buying expensive gloop which will, it is claimed, "defy the aging process", because I have yet to be persuaded that the aging process actually needs to be defied. (Anyway, even if I were, I would be extremely cynical about the capacity of said expensive goop to accomplish anything more miraculous than plumping up the skin to which it is applied on a decidedly temporary basis.)

However, skin is not the subject in hand.

When I was a small child, I deduced - from observation of the world around me - that womens' hair becomes curly when it goes grey. (I do remember finding it odd that men's hair didn't behave in the same way, but I was too young to recognise the significance of that fact for my scientific theory.) However, when I was about five, my grandmother took me on a longer walk than usual and into a shop run by a woman who had long, straight grey hair in a plait. Which goes to show that appearances can be deceptive. Particularly where women are concerned. The fact that 99.99% of old ladies have curly hair (or did, in the 1960s) doesn't necessarily imply that their hair has simply curled with age.

Having long dismissed my childish conclusion as having been based on an entirely false premise, I am beginning to wonder whether it contained an element of truth after all...

For more than 40 years* I had hair of such unrepentant straightness that rulers and pokers would hide themselves away from me in dark corners for fear of coming off worse in a comparison.

But I recently became aware that, when I touched the hair on the back of my head with my hand, it felt different. Feeling rather foolish, and bracing myself for gentle ridicule, I asked my hairdresser whether my hair had really developed a distinct wave.

What is interesting to me is that, not only did she immediately confirm that rulers and pokers may now co-exist with me in perfect confidence, but that she was not at all surprised by the change. She assured me that this happens to a lot of women "of a certain age" and, indeed, had happened to her some years earlier. (I gather it's a permanent alteration rather than a brief dalliance.)

While I'm not disconcerted in the slightest by the news that my hair will never again be ramrod-straight - frankly, I have many and various better things to worry about - I'm surprised this tendency of middle-aged women's hair hasn't been seized upon by the marketing mavens. After all, you can barely turn the television on without being assured that your "first greys" (pardon me while I wince in agony at that unwarranted abuse of a perfectly good adjective) can be covered up so that no-one will know you are no longer twenty-five.

I rely on advertising to alert me to the "signs of aging" about which I am expected to lose sleep, but I have never heard so much as a whisper about the waviness thing.

Which means

  • the trichologists can't come up with a solution (not that this would usually stand in their way);
  • the advertisers haven't been alerted to this potentially-lucrative new niche;
  • adverts are aimed at women below the age of 45; or
  • the phenomenon is far less widespread than my hairdresser believes.

Can anyone venture a guess as to which (or which combination) of those alternatives is the right answer? (I have to admit, this sounds like one for m'learned colleague, The Goldfish.)

The Editor

*Er, apart from a couple of years in the 1980s in which I succumbed to the demands of fashion and had my hair permed. This was not an unqualified success. Or a good look.

Saturday, February 09, 2008

Towards more picturesque English

Anyone who spent their childhood summers in self-catering holiday cottages in which the only form of indoor entertainment (holiday cottages did not come replete with televisions in those days) was a stack of mouldering Readers Digest magazines will recognise the title of this blog entry.

(I have never really been sure what the point of Readers Digest is: having always valued writing-style at least as highly as content, I am prone to wincing when the former is hacked to pieces in pursuit of brevity. The magazine itself is strange enough, but the appeal of the hardback dilutions of literary masterpieces is entirely beyond me.)

My poor mother: those holidays must have been exhausting for her. You had to take all your own bedlinen with you - it wouldn't fit in the boot of the car, so my brothers and I sat in the back seats with it under our feet, and our knees consequently up round our elbows - and vast quantities of food. She spent the week beforehand in a frenzy of shopping and baking and packing and planning, and recounts a recurring nightmare about an endless parade of wellington boots which all had to be fitted in to the family suitcases. We didn't eat out while we were on holiday. Prior to each of our day-long hikes in the countryside and/or tramps around stately homes, she would have to make up sandwiches, fruit, slices of cake and flasks of drink for five, and stow them all away safely where they wouldn't leak.

We went to the Forest of Dean one Whit week, and the weather was so bad that my father twice condescended to buy choc ices for the whole family. This, whilst very exciting for us children, was deemed to be an insupportable extravagance and was one which we were never to enjoy again.

But I digress.

It's a bad habit.

I'd like to blame the Tramadol, but I suspect it's really my age.

If you buy lovely things from Etsy sellers who are neither UK- nor US-based, you will find yourself in conversation with people who, in addition to their enviable artistic skills, have no trouble at all in conversing with you in what is their second - or possibly even third - language.

(Given that there was a time when - had the Internet existed then, and had I been in possession of an appropriate keyboard - I could have done the same in Greek, I feel fractionally less ashamed about this than I might otherwise have done.)

Last weekend, I bought this glorious fat necklace from a very nice Belgian lady called Karlita. (No necklace/scarf confusion here: this is one continuous loop of felted wool.) Anyway, so Karlita and I got chatting on the Etsy conversation screens - as you do - and she ended one of her messages with,

"warm wishes (do people say that? - in Dutch we say 'groetjes' which means little greetings - I like that but it does not translate well in English)".

How wonderful is that?

As "little greetings" is clearly a salutation by which the English language would be greatly enriched - and as it is infinitely preferable to the now-ubiquitous, horribly-girly and decidedly-un-British "hugs" - I'd like to encourage the scant handful of people who continue to read this blog to adopt it.

If I were braver than I actually am, I would start using it to sign off from my work emails. As it is, I think I'll save it for my personal correspondence for now...

Little greetings,

The Editor

Monday, February 04, 2008

Poppy Seed Loaves

Idly meandering through Etsy yesterday evening looking for poppies (for no real reason other than that poppies are very pretty), I was reminded of a recipe I used to make quite often in the dim, distant and pre-diabetic past.

It's in one of my notebooks, and I can no longer recall its exact provenance. I used to borrow cookery books from the library and copy out any recipes I particularly liked the look of. This one must have come from a book or a magazine article dedicated to tea-breads, flanked as it is in my notebook by "Raisin, almond and grapefruit loaf" and "Prune, lemon and hazelnut bread".

Tea-breads are, I suspect, largely a British phenomenon. They are neither bread nor, strictly speaking, cake. They are dense, moist, sticky loaves which are cut at the afternoon-tea table into thin slices, and buttered. They were a staple when I was growing up: I remember my mother used to - and quite possibly still does - use a recipe she had cut out of a magazine in which All Bran is soaked in cold tea overnight before the rest of the ingredients are slung together.

Anyway, despite Pop's insistence that he is quite sure I would start to enjoy baking once more if I simply posted the results to him the moment they cooled, I can't envisage myself ever making this particular recipe again. But I really did used to enjoy it, so I thought I'd stick it up on the blog in the hopes that some non-diabetic readers will make it and love it.

It's one of those tremendously-easy recipes in which you just beat everything together in a bowl, so it may be achievable even for people with impairment-related baking issues. It is very sweet indeed, though, and not to be attempted if you don't like the taste of poppy seeds. Or their propensity for getting stuck between your teeth. It makes 2 x 2lb loaves, which is a lot. I probably used to give one loaf away, but I imagine the second loaf would freeze quite successfully.

NB When I copied recipes into my notebook, I didn't do it word for word. I worked on the assumption that I didn't need to be told when to grease and line a cake tin; how to melt chocolate; what consistency egg-whites should be when whisked; how to tell when a cake is 'done'; the fact that ovens should be pre-heated, etc, etc. And I had - and still have - an electric oven, so I didn't write down the gas mark figure.

You will need:

4 eggs, beaten
1/2 pint corn oil
14oz can of condensed milk
1 1/2 teaspoons bicarbonate of soda
1 lb sugar
1 1/2 lbs plain flour
1 teaspoon vanilla essence (or extract, if you can get it)
1 teaspoon salt
5 tablespoons black poppy seeds (although white might be interesting)

Beat everything except half the poppy seeds together in a large bowl. Pour into your waiting loaf tins. Sprinkle the rest of the seeds on top. Bake at 325 degrees F/160 degrees C for an hour and a quarter, or until done.

See? I told you it was easy....

The Editor

Sunday, February 03, 2008

Not my cup of baby formula

My name is the Editor and I am an Etsy addict.

I am quite happy with my addiction, thanks for asking, and you need not offer me any of your twelve-step recovery plans. I have met some delightful artisans; I have spent my money where it will make a difference to talented people; and I have received some lovely jewellery, scarves, etc with which to draw attention away from the fact that my appearance would otherwise be far from fetching.

But there is no denying that some of the things which are held out for sale in the furthest corners of the site are ... strange. Strange is by no means necessarily bad, of course, and one man's meat has long been another man's poison. Items to which I would not personally give house-room under any circumstances are enthusiastically snapped up by customers whose tastes are evidently geometrically-opposite to my own.

Most of what is on offer in this shop, if I'm honest, scares the bejeezus out of me.

Now, admittedly, I am one of those rare women who lacks whatever gene it is which leads to cooing over babies. I simply don't find babies attractive. I can understand, intellectually, that one would more than likely be very fond indeed of one's own infant, and would probably deem him or her to be cute beyond all telling. But the warm, damp, squawling little bundles leave me entirely cold.

Combine this infant-indifference with the fact that I have read Graham Masterton's book, "Walkers", in a paperback copy illustrated with a screaming face bulging through brickwork, and you will understand why this, to me, is a ceramic rendition of a bloodied and distressed baby trapped behind a wall.

But the stuff of my nightmares is, to others, an appealing rendition of a gorgeous infant. As my mother frequently intones, "Life would be very boring if we were all the same". With which homily one really cannot argue.

But, but, but......

Assuming I have any readers who heart tiny babies very, very much, I would be grateful if one of them would explain to me exactly what it is that is adorable about this cup.

The Editor

Saturday, February 02, 2008

In which Pop behaves in a suggestive manner

Pop is away in Leeds this weekend, at a conference. He drove up there yesterday morning.

In one of my phone conversations with him on Thursday, I said it was a shame that I was going to be in the office the next day because, had I been working from home, he would have been able to phone me from the car. He said he would find alternative amusement in running people over.

Satisfied, therefore, that he was unlikely to expire from boredom, I thought no more about it until I spoke to him again later that evening. He, on the other hand, had clearly been giving the matter some thought in the interim.

"What you could do", he said, "is get up at 5 a.m., have your shower, take your meds and eat your breakfast, and then you'd be available to talk to me when I set off".

"Ha!", I said.

"Let me get this straight", I said.

"You expect me to get up an hour before the heating comes on on one of the coldest days of the year, and shower in cold water just so that you won't be bored on the first leg of your journey to Leeds?"

I may also have said things like, "Pshaw!" and, "As if!".

Guess what time I woke up yesterday morning?

It would seem that, on his return, Mr Larkin and I may need to have a little talk about the consequences to our mutual affection of him planting suggestions in my subconscious.

The Editor