Wednesday, 24 November 2010

Saving Money at Christmas

Not long ago I saw a tinplate box in a shop - an empty tinplate box. It was intended for storing cupcakes and the price was £20. Now, I know the pound ain't worth too much these days, just a bit ahead of the Confederate Dollar in fact, but £20 for an empty box seems a bit steep.

So here's my money-saving tip for 2010, offered free of charge. Visit your local friendly supermarket and buy a large tin of biscuits. Cost, £10 tops, maybe only £6 with special offers and so on. Eat the biscuits. You will be left with an ideal tin for storing your cupcakes in; albeit it won't have pretty pictures of cupcakes on it, in fact it will quite likely have pictures of biscuits, but for heaven's sake it's only for storage. You aren't going to serve your honoured guests out of the tin are you? That would be frightfully common!

Anyway I reckon that saves at least £10, maybe £14 and you get a load of free biscuits too!

'Cupcakes' is an Americanism. When I was a lad (and that's a long while back now) my mother made the things every week and called them 'buns'. Sometimes we'd go to Belle Vue Zoo and feed some to the elephants. You're not allowed to do that now as apparently cupcakes are bad for the elephant's digestion. Which makes you think. If an elephant can't digest a cupcake, how on earth are we supposed to do it?

By the way, I hear that cake stands are going for big money right now. Because cupcakes are all the rage and people want cake stands to put them on. Funny old world. Whatever next? Fish knives to become fashion items?

Wednesday, 10 November 2010

Pickled Onions

Do people outside the north of England still pickle their own onions? Honest question, I don't know.

The pickling season starts round about October when suitable onions are sold in supermarkets and certain garden centres. There is, of course, nothing to stop you making use of your own onions or shallots, the only key requirement is that they be relatively small, as they have to fit in jars.

Peeling them takes ages. It's a horrid, tedious task and, be warned, leaves a strong smell of onions on your hands. If this worries you, wear gloves. Top and tail the little onions and remove their outer skin. If the first layer is wrinkled or displeasing to the eye, strip it off and discard.

Next, soak them in brine for at least 24 hours. This is to make them crunchy. Apparently you can just put them in salt, but it would take an awful lot of salt to cover the batches we do. So brine is probably easier.

Now, put them in jars. Any old jars will do. Of course if you are posh you will have bought special jars for the purpose. But you don't need to. It does help though if the jar has a lid that can be sealed. (If it doesn't, use grease-proof paper and an elastic band to seal the jar. Not ideal but it will work.) Squeeze as many pickles as you can into each jar.

Next, pour in pickling vinegar. The special vinegar is best, but you can use ordinary malt vinegar instead and add spices to taste. If you like your pickles sweet (ugh!) add sugar. Make sure all the pickles are covered by the vinegar.

Leave in a cool place for at least three months. You might get away with opening them a little earlier, but they will be immature. I prefer to leave them for six months. Even twelve months at a pinch, but there is then an increasing risk that the pickles will go soft and taste horrible. I'm sure there's a scientific reason for this but I have no idea what it is.

A nice mature pickle should beat any shop-bought pickle into a cocked hat. It's the equivalent of real ale against fizzy 'keg' beer. Nothing is better sliced onto a cold beef sandwich, or as part of a ploughman's lunch. You can even eat them on their own if you've got the taste for them. Mmmmm!

A word of warning - the unsliced pickles are probably best kept away from small children as there may well be a choking risk. Better safe than sorry.

Thursday, 21 October 2010

The Greatest Knight

The Greatest KnightThe Greatest Knight by Elizabeth Chadwick

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Simply one of the best historical novels I have ever read.

Just enjoyed it for the second time of reading, and it is every bit as good as I thought it was. Elizabeth Chadwick goes from strength to strength. Has she reached her best yet? Only time will tell, but the standard she sets is very high indeed.

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Tuesday, 5 October 2010

The Sheen on the Silk

The Sheen on the Silk: A NovelThe Sheen on the Silk: A Novel by Anne Perry

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I found this quite a challenging read. This is partly because what I know about Byzantium can be written on a postage stamp, but this is certainly not a novel you can read with half your mind on TV or what you're having for dinner. Such inattention will leave you lost and having to go back to find out who this character is and what their motives might be.

Anna Zarides, a doctor, arrives in Constantinople in disguise as a eunuch, trying to establish the innocence of her brother, who has been banished to a remote monastry. Well, I thought, that's not very likely is it? She'll never get away with that! And she doesn't, because one character after another works out what she is and you wonder when and by whom she will be betrayed.

Set against a background of a threatened crusade against the city, and an attempt to avert this by an unpopular submission to Rome, the story is full of complex intrigue. If you like action, as such, you may find it rather boring as much of the book is devoted to Anna picking up patients and making discreet enquiries.

I thought it was worth the effort in the end, but this is not a book that will appeal to all.

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Saturday, 11 September 2010

Eternity beckons

While I was in Llandudno the other day I was asked where I was going to spend eternity. The lady who asked me the question came from Eccles originally, but lives in North Wales now, apparently spending much of her time distributing religious leaflets to random strangers.

The circumstances were a bit odd. I was sitting on my wife's disability scooter while she toured a shop, and I was just quietly minding my own business and watching the world go by. Consequently the lady sneaked up on the blind side and there was no getting away.

She was quite a nice woman though and even with the Black Dog sitting on me I am far too much of a gentleman to tell nice old ladies to **** off. The leaflet was short and to the point and it confirmed my long held suspicion that to get into heaven one has only to accept Jesus. I did that quite a bit ago and it appears no further action is necessary as it's all down to God's Grace and nothing to do with what we actually do. It's always pleasant to have one's opinions confirmed in writing though. (That's why stupid, bigoted newspapers sell more than the intelligent ones.)

I can recommend Llandudno's main shopping street as a locus. The last time I was there I got addressed by a lamp post, this time by a former resident of Eccles acting as an agent for Jesus. Next time perhaps someone will try to sell me a copy of Socialist Worker. I can hardly wait to find out.

Thursday, 5 August 2010

Progress Report, August 2010

Still hoping to complete the MS by end of this year, though it will be a push. It will be nothing like what was originally planned, but it will still be a serious novel around Richard III. I have not got a title. I am no longer happy with either of the previous working titles and so will have to come up with something else. The present title in the heading is 'Richard Novel' and I don't think that will cut the mustard, although it is to the point.

During the process I have produced a whole pile of 'rejected' stuff, some of which I am quite pleased with but simply doesn't fit into the present scheme. This will probably form the basis of a second book in due course. For the purpose of reference I am calling this 'Norfolk Novel'. It is likely to be quite light-hearted but not as way out as Alianore Audley. That is to say it won't have any deliberate anachronisms in it and it will be a straight piece of HF, albeit light-hearted.

The third main project for about a chapter has been written is my Richard the Second and Anne of Bohemia thing which I have been promising to do for some time. Working title - This New Spring of Time.

I have pretty well scrubbed round everything else, despite the attractions of Urraca of Zamora and Sir Thomas Fairfax. Although both intrigue me as characters, it is unlikely I have enough life left to do the research necessary to write what I should like to write about them.

So, after TNSoT I shall almost certainly retire from novel writing for good and focus on critting and making models of obscure pre 1914 railway wagons in 7mm/ft. scale.

Monday, 21 June 2010

Wolf Hall

Wolf Hall Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel

My rating: 5 of 5 stars
This book proved to me - much to my surprise - that it is possible to write a historical novel in the present tense without it becoming unreadable. The quality of the writing probably had something to do with it, but after struggling a little bit at the start I was drawn in.

Thomas Cromwell may seem an unlikely hero. He's almost invariably the deep-dyed villain of any novel in the era so it's a pleasant change to see things from his POV and he comes across as a very sympathetic character. In fact he seems to go out of his way to accommodate people. Thomas More, for example, gets thrown lifeline after lifeline, which of course he rejects.

It is sometimes just a little hard to work out who is speaking. There's a lot of conversation in this, and the author likes her personal pronouns. 'He' is however, not always Thomas Cromwell in these exchanges.

One oddity - it's stated that Elizabeth Woodville gave Edward IV a (remote) claim to Castile. News to me. It may be true, but if so it was vastly inferior to his own claim, which he made in heraldry from the start of his reign. (See the Edward IV Roll for proof). La Woodville had many qualities, but claims to thrones was not one of 'em.

This apart no historical issues jumped out of me, and the author juggled a very large cast of characters with great success. Having said all that, I still don't like present tense for HF and beg and plead with all authors out there to refuse to use it!!!

I do recommend the book, and I don't think it's a hard read. In fact, if it's classed as a literary novel, which it seems to be, it's a lot more accessible than most of that genre.

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Monday, 14 June 2010

Not how the Despensers lived

Sometimes one finds something on the internet that's so amazing it just has to be shared. One such is this: Folklore Essay

It's certainly news to me that Humphrey Duke of Gloucester was murdered by Henry V.

I'm also a bit puzzled as to how a man born in 1390 could have a son also born in 1390. I know they started early in the middle ages, but that is going some.

Sunday, 30 May 2010

A pain-free way of rasing money for charity

Some of you may know of this already but I am recommending it because it's a new discovery for me: Easyfundraising

You register with the site and pick your charity. I have picked Tia Greyhound and Lurcher Rescue
but there's a wide range to choose from and you can even register a new one.

Now, when you want to buy something online - and again there's a massive list of choices including Amazon, Tesco Direct, Waterstones, P. C. World, etc., etc., - you go through the Easyfundraising site. Then a small percentage (it varies) of what you pay for your purchase goes to your chosen charity. There's no cost to you.

Potentially this could give your charity a lot of money over the year without costing you a bean. Great idea, I thought.

Monday, 17 May 2010

Injured Greyhound Lucy Lu Needs Your Help

I am sick, absolutely sick, of excuses for humanity who abuse greyhounds.

That was a hard sentence to write, because the temptation to add numerous expletives was overwhelming. But it wouldn't have done any good.

The greyhound in question, a beautiful two-year-old bitch was so badly beaten that she has had to have months of expensive veterinary care. And the good people who are looking after her have to go on Ebay to try to raise funds for the cost.

If you want to read more go into Ebay UK and search on Injured Greyhound Lucy Lu Needs Your Help or go to item

If you can bung a fiver into the pot, so much the better. But it shouldn't be necessary, it really shouldn't. The 'people' who caused this suffering should be made to pay, and in an ideal world they should also be chucked in jail for a very long time. Alas, even if they're caught it'll be the usual case of a ten bob fine and 'don't do it again'.

Civilised society? I think not.

Sunday, 11 April 2010

The Pendle Witches

I am delighted to see that a new novel has been published on the Pendle Witches, Daughters of the Witching Hill by Mary Sharratt. As someone who has long been interested in the subject I look forward to reading this version of the story.

The classic novel on the subject (The Sunne in Splendour of Pendle Hill) is Mist Over Pendle by Robert Neill, which is now rather long in the tooth. But it has sold lots of copies and is still worth a look if you're interested.

For factual background my tip is The Lancashire Witchcraze by Jonathan Lumby. It was this account that made me realise just how much of Neill's novel is fictional!

The context of Lancashire in the 17th century is worth remembering. For a start, the population was about one third Catholic, unexceptional in our more tolerant times but seen as a potential threat to the state in the 1600s. Robert Neill's heroes are always moderates in politics and religion and Roger Nowell of Read the investigating magistrate in Mist Over Pendle is a middle-of-the-road Anglican, not particularly devout and, if anything, on better terms with his Catholic neighbours than with the Puritan ones. In reality Nowell was definitely at the Puritan end of the religious spectrum; several of his relatives were Calvinist divines with a national reputation.

In addition, Nowell had a great-nephew, Nicholas Starkie, whose children were allegedly possessed by demons as a result of witchcraft. In his community, the gentry of Pendle and Craven, there were several alleged cases of witchcraft, including the 'suspicious' death of Mr Thomas Lister of Westby at a wedding which Nowell attended. Moreover, the 'boss' of the County, William Stanley, Earl of Derby had had an elder brother allegedly murdered by witches.

I am sure there are natural causes for all these events. Lister's death, for example, was almost certainly the result of a heart attack or stroke. But in a world where even King James himself fervently believed in the reality of witchcraft we can scarcely be surprised if an obscure squire like Nowell was persuaded that evil was afoot in his back yard.

As to the 'witches' themselves, they were country 'healers' and 'wise-women', but undoubtedly they believed in their own powers and such was the state of the law that such beliefs and practices were dangerous. It seems likely that some of their 'incantations' were nothing more than mangled versions of Latin prayers.

There is a common misconception that witchcraft was more severely punished in the middle ages. In England at least, this is not true. It was under Elizabeth I and James I that the statutes were tightened to their most severe level, with death as the usual penalty.

Nowell and his fellow magistrates subjected the accused to question and answer sessions. These were not recorded verbatim, and probably not contemporaneously. In effect, Nowell could write down his interpretation of what had been said. For example one woman rode to a meeting on a pony, but in the evidence this animal became a familiar spirit!

It is not necessary to see Nowell as a wicked man by the standards of his time - like some detectives of the 1960s, he 'knew' the accused were guilty, and so provided the necessary 'evidence' to ensure they were convicted. (Despite the rather dodgy standards of justice in these times it was by no means unknown for an alleged witch to be acquitted by a jury.) Nowell probably thought he was doing his public duty by ensuring there were no loose ends.

One of Nowell's witnesses was a nine-year-old girl, another a youth with what we would now politely call 'learning difficulties.' This, with the written 'confessions' Nowell had created from the interviews was quite enough to ensure that all the accused were hanged, most at Lancaster, one at York.

Saturday, 10 April 2010

The Glory Of Chicken Curry

Here is a recipe for Chicken Rogan Josh you may like to try. I have added my own refinements to the basic dish and the product is lip-smackingly good, though I say so myself. If you don't like chicken you can substitute lamb fillet and I dare say it would work with beef or pork as well though I haven't tried these so they're on your own head.

Ingredients - should serve four easily, may stretch to six.

About 900 grams chicken breast/pieces.
1 decent-sized onion, finely chopped.
250 ml natural yoghurt - plain.
3 tablespoons lemon juice
1 teaspoon salt.
4 garlic cloves (crushed).
1" piece of fresh ginger. (Use a bit more if you like.)
4 tablespoons vegetable oil
Half teaspoon cumin seeds. (You can use a bit more if you want.)
3 bay leaves.
4 green cardamom pods.
2 teaspoons ground coriander.
2 teaspoons ground cumin.
1 or 2 teaspoons of ground turmeric. (This is mainly to improve the colour.)
1 teaspoon fenugreek. (Reduce or omit if you dislike fenugreek.)
1 teaspoon cinnamon.
1 teaspoon hot chilli powder OR 1 red chilli pepper sliced. (The latter makes it hotter.)
1 can (400g) chopped tomatoes
2 tablespoons tomato puree
About two thirds a cup of water.
Plain boiled rice - or basmati if you prefer
Optional extras - small tin of baked beans or chickpeas; sliced mushrooms; 1 sliced pepper.


1. The night before - mix the yoghurt, salt, two garlic cloves, and the ginger which you should grate. Stir in the chicken - or other meat. Leave in fridge until ready for preparation.

2. Slice your onion and add the remaining garlic. Extract the contents of the cardamon pods, set aside and discard husks.

3. Heat the oil in a large pan until hot enough for frying then add cumin seeds. When they start to splutter add the bay leaves and the contents of the cardamom pods and fry for 2 minutes.

4. Add the onion and garlic and fry for about 4-5 minutes. Then add turmeric, fenugreek, coriander, cumin, chilli powder (or sliced chilli - preferred by me) and cinnamon. It may look pretty horrible at this point but it should smell OK. Fry for about 2 minutes.

5. Add the marinated chicken to the mixture and give it a good stir. Keep on stirring for about five minutes.

6. Add the chopped tomatoes, tomato puree and water. Also add small tin of baked beans or chickpeas; sliced mushrooms; 1 sliced pepper if you are including these extras.

7. Cover and simmer for one and a half hours. Note - do not go away and do something else. The curry needs an eye kept on it and regular stirring to prevent it from sticking and burning. If it gets too dry, add a cup or so of water.

8. Serve with rice, naans, and whatever other adjuncts you fancy.


Acknowledgement - modified from an original recipe in Curries of the World by Mridula Baljekar, an excellent book which I recommend.

Tuesday, 2 March 2010

Book Review - In A Dark Wood Wandering by Hella S Haasse

I have been re-reading this wonderful book lately, and it reminded me what a quality historical novel looks like. It is the story of Charles, Duke of Orleans, literally from his birth to his death. The Orleans presented here is scarcely a conventional hero at all, and has some pretty obvious character faults, and yet he's somehow endearing and fascinating as well as a real human being.

Historical accuracy is generally very good - a couple of English titles are wrong, but apart from that nothing leapt out. (There are also a few cases of what I suspect to be dodgy translation - the book was originally written in Dutch.)

It's interesting to read of Agincourt from a French point of view, and the descriptions of the extraordinary 'court' of Charles VI are quite wonderful and, I suspect, close to reality.

I cannot praise this book too highly, and if you are at all interested in reading about the fifteenth century from a French viewpoint this novel cannot be bettered.

Saturday, 9 January 2010

Poetry Corner - The Inchcape Rock

One I remember from school! Oh, and by the way 'Aberbrothok' = Arbroath, Scotland

No stir in the air, no stir in the sea,
The ship was still as she could be,
Her sails from heaven received no motion,
Her keel was steady in the ocean.
Without either sign or sound of their shock
The waves flow’d over the Inchcape Rock;
So little they rose, so little they fell,
They did not move the Inchcape Bell.
The Abbot of Aberbrothok
Had placed that bell on the Inchcape Rock;
On a buoy in the storm it floated and swung,
And over the waves its warning rung.
When the Rock was hid by the surge’s swell,
The mariners heard the warning bell;
And then they knew the perilous Rock,
And blest the Abbot of Aberbrothok.
The Sun in heaven was shining gay,
All things were joyful on that day;
The sea-birds scream’d as they wheel’d round,
And there was joyaunce in their sound.
The buoy of the Inchcape Bell was seen
A darker speck on the ocean green;
Sir Ralph the Rover walk’d his deck,
And he fix’d his eye on the darker speck.
He felt the cheering power of spring,
It made his whistle, it made him sing;
His heart was mirthful to excess,
But the Rover’s mirth was wickedness.
His eye was on the Inchcape float;
Quoth he, ‘My men, put out the boat,
And row me to the Inchcape Rock,
And I’ll plague the Abbot of Aberbrothok.’
The boat is lower’d, the boatmen row,
And to the Inchcape Rock they go;
Sir Ralph bent over from the boat,
And he cut the Bell from the Inchcape float.
Down sunk the Bell with a gurgling sound,
The bubbles rose and burst around;
Quoth Sir Ralph, ‘The next who comes to the Rock
Won't bless the Abbot of Aberbrothok.'
Sir Ralph the Rover sail’d away,
He scour’d the seas for many a day;
And now grown rich with plunder’d store,
He steers his course for Scotland’s shore.
So thick a haze o’erspreads the sky
They cannot see the Sun on high;
The wind hath blown a gale all day,
At evening it hath died away.
On the deck the Rover takes his stand,
So dark it is they see no land.
Quoth Sir Ralph, ‘It will be lighter soon,
For there is the dawn of the rising Moon.’
‘Canst hear,’ said one, ‘the breakers roar?
For methinks we should be near the shore.’
‘Now where we are I cannot tell,
But I wish I could hear the Inchcape Bell.’
They hear no sound, the swell is strong;
Though the wind hath fallen they drift along,
Till the vessel strikes with a shivering shock,
‘Oh Christ! It is the Inchcape Rock!’
Sit Ralph the Rover tore his hair;
He curst himself in his despair;
The waves rush in on every side,
The ship is sinking beneath the tide.
But even in his dying fear
One dreadful sound could the Rover hear,
A sound as if with the Inchcape Bell,
The Devil below was ringing his knell.

Robert Southey 1802

Friday, 8 January 2010

Let it (not) snow

OK, it's a boring topic. The TV is full of it now some snow has landed on London and the South and is no longer a regional curiousity suffered by those of us living north of Watford.

But I am freaking sick of it! Can we have an early Spring please? Pretty please!