Eagle-eyed readers (hullo, both of you) may have spotted that I’ve been tidying this dusty corner of the internet. An early resolution for 2017: more blogging. Until then, the liberal application of RONUK (sanitary) polish continues.
Eagle-eyed readers (hullo, both of you) may have spotted that I’ve been tidying this dusty corner of the internet. An early resolution for 2017: more blogging. Until then, the liberal application of RONUK (sanitary) polish continues.
I voted to Remain for entirely pragmatic reasons. No great fan of the EU, I nevertheless recognised our dependence on it and understood the huge damage that quitting it would cause both this country and the world. All the evidence suggested that. It continues to suggest that.
A major source of exasperation before the referendum was the apparent impossibility of trying to argue this point with a group that was so hostile to evidence that it preferred sticking its fingers in its ears and shouting to explaining the finer points of its position (or – if one feels like pursuing an ad hominem tack, as, in moments of impotent rage, I sometimes do – a group that struggled to articulate any credible argument, or was so unused to debate that it simply didn’t understand the need to justify its point of view).
Post-referendum, that exasperation has been amplified as many Leave supporters continue to wilfully misunderstand the purpose of debate and ignore the traditional role of opposition in our democracy. “We won,” they crow. “It’s the will of the people. You’re undemocratic. Brexit means Brexit. You’re unpatriotic. Shut up.”
While this is, to a certain extent at least, understandable of people for whom winning – or even being listened to – is such a novelty that they mistakenly think referendum success somehow confers moral as well as political clout, I do find it hard to believe that many Brexiteers would even momentarily entertain such an attitude if the vote went the other way (indeed, even the Brexiteers’ ranine figurehead Mr Farage himself said that he wouldn’t accept a 48/52 loss) or if they found themselves in a similar position following a general election – in which, let’s not forget, their opinion would actually have some constitutional value. (As everyone knows, the referendum was only ever advisory and was so vague in scope as to be fatuously blunt as an instrument of reform anyway. After all, the issue of EU membership is not, and could never be, a binary choice of ‘stay’ or ‘go’ – hence all the hot air about ‘hard Brexit’, ‘soft Brexit’ and every degree of Brexit rigidity in between those poles.)
No, in a general election these people wouldn’t for a moment expect their opponents to say, nor, indeed, would themselves say if they lost: “We will now unquestioningly agree with everything the government says, regardless of how wrongheaded it is and how damaging it clearly is to the country’s interests. We were wrong to vote the way we did. We see that now.”
The fact is that if you lose (or, rather, if the party you support loses) an election, you don’t just have a right to oppose the winners; you have a duty. An effective opposition must hold the government to account – without it, we are but a few steps from authoritarianism, despotism and disaster. The same point applies now. If we’re stuck with this awful decision then we’ve got to make the best of it, and that means we need to debate the issue and keep on debating it. Debate is healthy. The leavers fear this because they mistake convictions for conclusions and can’t handle even the concept of argument. But they, like everyone else, need to remember this: if what you say is right, then you have nothing to fear from anyone challenging you. Facts do not crumple in the face of rebuttal. Logic does not bow to opinion. Attempting to forcibly silence your opponent is the tactic of the tyrant.
It is not the will of ‘the people’ to leave. It is the will of some of them – a small minority. Using the 52/48 numbers is a psephological falsehood. Turnout was 72.2%. Just over 25,000 votes weren’t counted. So 37.5% of the electorate voted to leave, not 52%. To be factually accurate, we should always refer to this number, and to the 62.5% of people who didn’t vote to quit the union. (And if you want to talk about how ‘the UK’ voted, you should be aware that the electorate is 45.5 million and the population some 65 million. The UK did not vote to leave. About a quarter of it did. Saying the country voted to leave is akin to saying the country voted for a Tory government. It didn’t. A small proportion of it did.)
And no one voted to leave the single market – that wasn’t on the card at all.
Even though it’s yet to occur, Brexit is already damaging our country, and will continue to damage it. Leaving the European Union – especially if we handle our departure badly, which we show every sign of doing – will further diminish us, not strengthen us. Saying so is not undemocratic (nor for that matter is it unpatriotic). We need to keep making a noise about this.
It’s an almighty disaster.
Conversations I’ve had over the past few weeks have confirmed for me that while those of us who want to remain in the European Union do so based on the balance of evidence, the Brexit position is largely borne of instinct, not intellect.
Put simply, Brexiteers don’t have – or want – evidence to support their cause, nor do they change their minds when confronted with evidence that proves their position untenable. No, they have convictions instead. They reckon.
“I reckon we should leave the EU. The European Court of Human Rights makes us give chicken to burglars.”
No it doesn’t. Anyway, the European Court of Human Rights has nothing to do with the EU. We set it up after the Second World War to enforce the Convention on Human Rights, which we helped to write.
“Yeah, but the EU imposes laws on us.”
EU voting records show that since 1999 the British government has voted ‘no’ to proposed legislation 57 times, abstained 70 times, and voted ‘yes’ 2,474 times. We’ve been in favour of almost all of it: the UK has been on ‘the losing side’ in Brussels on just 2% of occasions in the last 17 years.
As opposed to the House of Lords? The monarchy? A parliamentary majority based on 35% of the popular vote?
The European Commission employs about 33,000 people, around 6,000 work in the European Parliament’s general secretariat, and the European Council employs about 3,500. That’s 42,500 all in. The UK has 440,000 civil servants – more than ten times as many as the EU.
“We’ll be better off if we leave.”
Most economists say we won’t. The IMF, the OECD, the Bank of England, the Treasury, the Confederation of British Industry, the Institute of Fiscal Studies, the London School of Economics all say we won’t. Do you think you know more than them? Since we joined the EU, our GDP per head has more than doubled – being in the EU has hardly hindered us.
“But we’re flooded with immigrants.”
We’re a nation built on immigration; immigration has accounted for half of UK GDP growth since 2005. And besides, we have more control over our borders than most EU countries. If we leave, we’ll have to sign up to the Schengen Agreement to access the single market, like Norway and Switzerland had to. That means we’ll have no control at all. Is that what you want?
“Well, foreigners come over here and use the NHS.”
About 100,000 immigrants work in the NHS. They keep it going. The NHS is foundering because of underinvestment.
“Yeah, but I still reckon we should leave.”
Not fond of facts, are you?
The thing is, you just can’t use logic or evidence to move someone who feels instead of thinks. That’s why trying to explain to most Brexiteers that they’re wrong is so futile and frustrating. They’re obstinate flat-earthers.
“I reckon the world is flat.”
Interesting. It’s not, though, is it? Look at the phases of the moon; the way ships seem to disappear over the horizon. Consider how you can see farther when you stand on higher ground. Think about why there are different time zones. Look at the images of the planet taken from space.
“Yeah, but I still reckon it’s flat.”
I reckon you’re an idiot.
“My opinion is just as valid as yours.”
I suppose we shouldn’t be surprised by this attitude, though. As a country, we have a long history of sticking our fingers in our ears and stubbornly rejecting evidence. The British are traditionally a happily ignorant people, proud of their heritage (which they only have to believe in) rather than their history (which requires effort to learn and understand).
This popular ignorance has served successive governments well, allowing them to rely on nationalist propaganda as a means of drumming up support for otherwise indefensible actions.
Now, however, it’s coming back to bite them on the aris. The people most likely to fall for this sort of popular jingoism – the over-60s and the undereducated – are the ones who are most likely to vote for Brexit, according to YouGov research. That’s why Farage et al. have been appealing to fear and impulse by banging on about immigrants and ‘taking control’ and ‘making Britain great again’, as if any of these spurious notions stand up to any kind of scrutiny.
My parents’ generation, the post-war baby boomers, were raised in a culture of Boy’s Own stories of plucky British derring-do and doing down Johnny Foreigner. They now find that the world has changed while they’ve stood still, and everything they were brought up to believe is now considered wrong. Where’s the certainty they once knew? Where’s the safety they felt when the world was smaller and their outlook more insular? No wonder they’re frightened and bewildered. Of course they’re voting Brexit. They don’t want to admit that they can’t bring back the Great Britain of their youth. (It disappeared long ago – if it even existed. We haven’t been a global power since 1945; arguably, since before then. The Suez Crisis was the last nail in our Imperial coffin and that was 60 years ago.)
As for the other majority group of Brexiteers, the undereducated, it stands to reason that they’d follow their gut instincts and ignore facts. How could they be expected to change their minds when they’re not accustomed to using them? They’ve been conditioned from birth to believe that instinct is better than intellect, even if evidence proves their instinct false. Counter an undereducated Brexiteer’s objections with evidence – however plentiful – and they too will still insist that faceless, unelected Eurocrats are straightening their bananas and imposing laws, and that Austerity Britain’s social problems are the fault of immigrants rather than the government, because they’ve unquestioningly swallowed the lie that everything that’s wrong in the country is Europe’s fault, and that parliament will fix everything when it ‘regains control’ by leaving. It won’t. It can’t. (Indeed, in some cases, like immigration, the UK will actually have less control: as many have pointed out, access to the single market for non-EU members means ceding immigration control entirely, as Switzerland and Norway’s signing of the Schengen Agreement demonstrates. Without the single market, we’re knackered. And any deal we will negotiate has to be worse than our current arrangements – that much is surely obvious.)
What seems particularly odd in both cases – and is more than a little redolent of the protests of a Stockholm syndrome sufferer – is the fact that anyone would want to hand more power to the British government when they’ve been so ill-served by Westminster for so long. The EU offers balances and checks that our own venal MPs surely warrant. I despise and despair of our politicians and would give more power to European Union if I could, not less.
Don’t get me wrong – the union is far from perfect. It’s badly in need of reform and the Juncker Commission needs to go. But that’s hardly a reason to abandon it. This is far too complicated an issue to be handed to the public to decide. Cameron’s a fool for letting this get as far as a plebiscite.
Note that the following is from fallible memory. This is not a review – more an attempt to capture what happened as much for my benefit as anyone else’s. If you were there and remember it all quite differently, feel free to tell me. I’ve doubtless missed a lot of detail and jumbled the sequence. I also don’t know James’ own poetry so I’ve only quoted one of his. There were more.
8.30pm, Friday 14th November 2014. The Cambridge Union Chamber.
There was much affectionate applause as he shuffled in. As he silenced the crowd, he recalled the bass Boris Christoff, who basked in audiences’ applause to a famously nauseating degree, physically gathering the adulation to himself with great sweeping arm gestures from the edge of the stage. (Christoff once apparently enjoyed an audience’s ovation so much that, in the middle of a performance of Boris Godunov, he sang the same aria twice, causing many to miss their trains, James said. Much laughter
and applause followed, James beckoning like Christoff as it came.) The point was that, like Christoff, he always needed his ego feeding; he was privileged still to be able to get that kick, he said.
Mentally, his acuity was as evident as ever. Physically, he seemed on the ropes. He was slow of movement, sounded hoarse, and was clearly fighting the urge to cough, but it must be stressed that he didn’t actually seem too bad given the state of his health – something that, knowing how much it interested people, he spent a while outlining: he has emphysema (now known as COPD, a name that reminded him of a TV show) and leukaemia (currently in remission). He reflected too on the – to him – inexplicable media interest in his decline. When you talk of expiring by Saturday, he said, it’s slightly embarrassing when Sunday comes around and you’re still here. In fact, he said, he was now in the habit of making final appearances. Much applause at this.
He was happy that his leukaemia mercifully has one redeeming feature: it’s of the non-painful sort. And when it eventually comes to get him – whenever that might be – he won’t know much about it. The emphysema is reward for a lifetime’s enthusiastic smoking (if I remember rightly from his Unreliable Memoirs he used a hubcap as an ashtray and filled it daily), and the doctors at Addenbrooke’s are working immuno-globular marvels. He goes there every three weeks to be treated with his fellow sufferers. “It’s an exclusive club. We sit in silence, reading. When the tea lady comes around it’s a real event.”
There are two ways, he said, to deal with terminal illnesses: you sit and wait to die, or you keep working as if you have all the time in the world. Having always written, he continues to write, although he notes that he writes of death more and more.
Asking that no one took photos (unless he dropped dead on stage, in which case we were more than welcome – he would try to fall in a suitably photogenic attitude), he noted that, in the age of Twitter, pictures could be around the world in seconds, and he regretted not being able to write his own captions. “I want to say I’m having a wonderful time and am perfectly happy.”
Despite his mistrust of modern technology (I remember him once saying on Radio 4 that the computer’s insistence on committing the ephemeral to eternity made it an instrument of the devil), he’s gratified that Twitter has afforded him widespread global recognition for his poetry: a poem about the Japanese maple tree in his garden, recently published in the New Yorker, went viral. He recited it.
Your death, near now, is of an easy sort.
So slow a fading out brings no real pain.
Breath growing short
Is just uncomfortable. You feel the drain
Of energy, but thought and sight remain:
Enhanced, in fact. When did you ever see
So much sweet beauty as when fine rain falls
On that small tree
And saturates your brick back garden walls,
So many Amber Rooms and mirror halls?
Ever more lavish as the dusk descends
This glistening illuminates the air.
It never ends.
Whenever the rain comes it will be there,
Beyond my time, but now I take my share.
My daughter’s choice, the maple tree is new.
Come autumn and its leaves will turn to flame.
What I must do
Is live to see that. That will end the game
For me, though life continues all the same:
Filling the double doors to bathe my eyes,
A final flood of colours will live on
As my mind dies,
Burned by my vision of a world that shone
So brightly at the last, and then was gone.
[Assume applause after all recitations.]
He explained how the state of his health meant he’d never see Australia again, but that it didn’t matter to him because his family were all here and his recollection of his Australian childhood grew more vivid to him every day. He couldn’t remember what happened the day before, but…
Flashback… At school he’d been made to learn poems by rote. “We had to recite four lines at the end of every day or else we wouldn’t be allowed home. Some of my classmates are still there.”
It wasn’t till he was at university in Sydney, however, that he decided he wanted to be a poet. He therefore took the important first step of dressing like one, in open-necked shirt, khaki drills and desert boots. He would then hide in the bushes by the science block and surprise girls by jumping out and declaiming ee cummings:
you shall above all things be glad and young
you shall above all things be glad and young
For if you’re young, whatever life you wear
It will become you; and if you are glad
whatever’s living will yourself become.
Girlboys may nothing more than boygirls need:
i can entirely her only love
whose any mystery makes every man’s
flesh put space on; and his mind take off time
that you should ever think, may god forbid
and (in his mercy) your true lover spare:
for that way knowledge lies, the foetal grave
called progress, and negation’s dead undoom.
I’d rather learn from one bird how to sing
than teach ten thousand stars how not to dance
This method of flirtation was universally unsuccessful. Poetry doesn’t work that way, he noted, advising current undergraduates to choose shorter poems with which to woo girls so that the poor saps would be less humiliated when the targets of their affections walked away. “Painters have the advantage over poets as they can say, ‘In order to truly see your soul I need to see you with your clothes off.’ No poet gets away with that. Lucian Freud was a case in point…”
cummings was wrong in that poem anyway, he said. The greatest of love poets he identified as Auden and Marvell. Recalling Alan Bennett’s famous comment about the lines on Wystan’s face (‘if that’s his face, whatever must his scrotum look like?’) to the delight of the audience, he then recited ‘Lullaby‘:
Lay your sleeping head, my love,
Human on my faithless arm;
Time and fevers burn away
Individual beauty from
Thoughtful children, and the grave
Proves the child ephemeral:
But in my arms till break of day
Let the living creature lie,
Mortal, guilty, but to me
The entirely beautiful.
Soul and body have no bounds:
To lovers as they lie upon
Her tolerant enchanted slope
In their ordinary swoon,
Grave the vision Venus sends
Of supernatural sympathy,
Universal love and hope;
While an abstract insight wakes
Among the glaciers and the rocks
The hermit’s carnal ecstasy.
On the stroke of midnight pass
Like vibrations of a bell,
And fashionable madmen raise
Their pedantic boring cry:
Every farthing of the cost,
All the dreaded cards foretell,
Shall be paid, but from this night
Not a whisper, not a thought,
Not a kiss nor look be lost.
Beauty, midnight, vision dies:
Let the winds of dawn that blow
Softly round your dreaming head
Such a day of welcome show
Eye and knocking heart may bless,
Find the mortal world enough;
Noons of dryness find you fed
By the involuntary powers,
Nights of insult let you pass
Watched by every human love.
Magnificent old bugger indeed. It was some time before James found out Auden was gay and that the poem was probably addressed to a trucker or similar bit of rough. Or maybe even MacNeice or Isherwood. (James is fond of MacNeice, thinking him criminally underrated because of his lyricism.) “I wasn’t shocked,” he said of Auden’s homosexuality. “It broadened my mind – and my mind at the time needed broadening.” He later came to meet the poet at Cambridge. Auden’s famously slovenly personal habits were much in evidence: what appeared to be a tie depicting a Jackson Pollock turned out to be a plain, knitted number that bore the accretions of a hundred breakfasts.
The other great love poet? The marvellous Marvell, of course. He recited The Definition of Love, prefacing his performance with the comment that if he stumbled over any lines he might as well drop dead then and there. He stumbled. Happily, he didn’t drop.
My love is of a birth as rare
As ’tis, for object, strange and high ;
It was begotten by Despair,
Magnanimous Despair alone
Could show me so divine a thing,
Where feeble hope could ne’er have flown,
But vainly flapped its tinsel wing.
And yet I quickly might arrive
Where my extended soul is fixed ;
But Fate does iron wedges drive,
And always crowds itself betwixt.
For Fate with jealous eye does see
Two perfect loves, nor lets them close ;
Their union would her ruin be,
And her tyrannic power depose.
And therefore her decrees of steel
Us as the distant poles have placed,
(Though Love’s whole world on us doth wheel),
Not by themselves to be embraced,
Unless the giddy heaven fall,
And earth some new convulsion tear.
And, us to join, the world should all
Be cramp’d into a planisphere.
As lines… as lines…
[Here, James lost his way and had to skip to the next line.]
But ours, so truly parallel,
Though infinite, can never meet.
Therefore the love which us doth bind,
But Fate so enviously debars,
Is the conjunction of the mind,
And opposition of the stars.
[Applause, and on to the Q&A.]
Someone asked what he’d choose to recite now if he were to jump from the bushes. (“One of mine!”) Someone asked his favourite place in Cambridge. (Hugh’s bookstall in the market; King’s chapel.) A woman spent five minutes telling everyone about her dyslexia and saying how clever she was. James suggested she read his new book. Then he got up and shuffled out and that was that.
One final flourish that came his way is worth recording. In the middle of one answer he suddenly had a flash of memory and triumphantly recited the lines he’d forgotten earlier:
As lines, so love’s oblique, may well
Themselves in every angle greet :
But ours, so truly parallel,
Though infinite, can never meet.
There followed more Christoff-esque applause-grabbing. He looked like he meant it this time.
Others may get into brawls and bust-ups late in the evening when, drunk and agitated, all swagger and bravado at the pub and spoiling for a scrap, they growl such time-honoured openers as “Are you looking at my bird?” and “You spilled my pint.” Nothing so conventional for me. I managed to be attacked – unprovoked – yesterday at 6.45pm near John Lewis, having had a single glass of red wine following a piano recital. A more feebly middle-class situation you couldn’t imagine.
Walking along the south side of Cavendish Square with my wife, discussing whether we should go somewhere for a drink or go straight home, suddenly I feel someone hit me. Entirely taken by surprise, I look to my left and see an angry, bespectacled face grimacing back at me, shouting at me to get out of his way, and then he hits me again. I ask what the hell he thinks he’s doing, my wife shouts at him not to hit me, he hits me again, backing me into a doorway, I, feeling in danger of being trapped, hit him back, he then backs off, my wife shouts at me not to hit him back and steps in, and we all three stand there in an odd sort of Mexican standoff for a while before he aggressively points his finger at me, shouts a bit more that I should watch out, I point out that he’s mad, then he stalks off. This probably takes scarcely a minute from start to finish. While it is happening, several people pass by, others sit outside a nearby pub watching, and a security guard from a nearby building looks on. No one helps.
No great physical damage was done. I have a bruise on my chest from that first strike, and my right wrist is swollen and painful from, I think, him catching me with his watch as I blocked a punch he swung at me, but really I got off lightly. I was, however, rattled by the experience. It was all very odd indeed. In 15 years of living in London, I’ve never seen or experienced anything like it.
Had he perhaps just had a bad day and wanted to take it out on someone, and I was in the wrong place at the wrong time? I was entirely unaware of his presence till he punched me in the chest, when he was clearly in some state of agitation, shouting at me. If so, I suppose it was lucky he hadn’t chosen to vent his aggression on someone smaller and less able to defend themselves. He was black and I was white; was it perhaps a racial incident? It seemed unlikely. Beyond occasional shouted abuse in South London where I live, I hadn’t come across that sort of thing before. I just don’t know what to make of it. Maybe I shouldn’t try to find any sense in it at all. It’s just another ordinary little anecdote of everyday life in a big city. Only this one happened to me.
In my mid-thirties, I’m becoming dispirited by the fact that I am increasingly unable to keep up with things. The idea that I might even have been trying to do so will be laughable to many (it’s not as if I have ever harboured serious designs of omniscience), but, well, put it this way: books, music, art, film, television, politics, science, technology, sport, social media, gastronomy, everything: all is information, information, information…
There’s just too much of it, I don’t have the will, inclination, memory or brain power to sift through it all any more, and it’s getting me down. It’s absurd of me, I know. Coleridge is said to have been the last man to have read everything (and he was so opium-addled he didn’t even have the wit to finish his second most famous poem after a minor distraction; if he’d had the internet I doubt he’d have even got beyond In Xanadu in the first place, visitor from Porlock or no visitor from Porlock). No one can reasonably expect to do more than scratch the surface nowadays. Not when there’s so much drek to wade through.
Lazy journalism encourages vapid cultural consumerism by compiling lists of books/films/albums to read/watch/listen to before death (usually 70s sci-fi and prog-rock as far as I can tell, fitting with what the author of the piece enjoyed as an adolescent), as if, as you wheeze your last, your impending demise will somehow be sweetened by the knowledge of having spent so much of your rapidly-diminishing existence engaged in the largely passive activities of reading/watching/listening, but that doesn’t stop us (for which, read me) falling for it and still wanting to keep up.
No, I haven’t watched the last 10 HBO box sets the Guardian recommends; no, I don’t have much of an opinion about the latest civil unrest to hit some country I know I’ll never visit; no, I haven’t read last year’s Booker shortlist; no, I don’t understand the full implications of the new Spending Review; no, I haven’t been to the latest faddish restaurant decried by Giles Coren, nor have I even been to the last (and no, while we’re at it, I don’t particularly want to see a sepia-tinted photograph of your lunch); no, I don’t listen to Radio 1, know who’s in the top ten, nor even care if that’s still a relevant thing anyway; no, good or bad, worthwhile or not, I simply don’t have the ability to dwell on it all any more. I’ve been to the cinema once in the last year, barely go to art galleries any more and Christ knows when I last visited a theatre. I flatter myself that I’m better read than most, but still I find myself woefully ignorant.
And I’m losing my grip on any sense of discernment I may once have had because of the sheer volume of stuff I have to contend with. I can feel myself slowly slipping into the Abyss Of The Old where it is de rigueur to stick with what you know and shun the new simply because it’s just easier that way. I don’t want that. And despite, more by accident than design, having managed to accumulate useless knowledge on a scale that embarrasses and shames me, the Zeitgeist is largely alien to me and I feel increasingly put upon by, out of place in, and hostile to, the modern world. I haven’t seen enough, I haven’t read enough, I haven’t absorbed enough, I haven’t understood enough to feel any sense of contentment. I know I never will, for I am guilty: I have failed in my duties as a 21st century Briton. I can’t even remember half the things I once knew; is there really that much space in my memory for all this inessential new information? I’ve consumed too much for my tiny brain and I’m culturally constipated from a glut of stuff.
I waste hours of my life staring at screens, reading the opinions of people I don’t care about, needlessly refreshing Twitter instead of spending that time more productively reading books I actually want to read, gawping at blogs and journalism in which I have no genuine interest just because I feel I ought to, and that I might otherwise miss out. Is that really what the human experience now amounts to? A Sisyphean assault on Mount Information? I think I must be going about things wrongly.
So the question I ask myself is this: will it matter if I just stop? Will it matter if I just accept I can’t keep up, so I may as well not try, switch off Twitter and Facebook, stop absorbing all this senseless ephemera and try to live in happy isolation, heedless of the bombardment of information from a technologically adept society in which I feel singularly inept? Read what I want, watch what I want, listen to what I want, look at what I want, and to hell with the rest of it? I think it’s time for an experiment of sorts, a temporary tactical retreat from the incessant prattle of the 21st century. My thraldom to my iPhone must cease. I must shun social media sites. I must filter out all the unnecessary crap that blights my life. Whole swathes of modern culture, of experience, the doors to which I’ve only peered around hitherto, I’m now quietly closing, knowing I may never look in again. It may help. It may not. We shall see.
Modernity, get thee behind me. For a while, anyway.
(The latest in an occasional series where I make a snafu of foodstuffs in pursuit of domesticity.)
My mother, as mothers of my mother’s generation tended to, made cakes when I was little, and I’ve happy, hazily-nostalgic recollections of Sunday tea-times in the 80s, sat goggle-eyed on the floor in front of the wooden cabinet containing our cumbersome, geriatric television set, watching BBC1’s worthy, literary, early evening output (The Box Of Delights, Narnia, and the like…), whilst greedily guzzling orange barley water with a slab of something sweet and spongy by my side, as I tried to ignore with growing horror that it was getting closer and closer to bath-time, bedtime, Monday morning misery and school. Sunday treats might include a golden, gooey honey cake, a rich, buttercream-filled chocolate cake or, my particular favourite, a light fruit sponge mottled with the deep purple veins of burst blackcurrants, freshly picked from the overgrown kitchen garden at the back of our house (before my father decided, in a fit of characteristically reforming horticultural zeal, to clear all the fruit trees, bushes and plants, thus ending the days of foraging for good), but I never much cared for coffee and walnut cake. As an adult, though, things are different. Present me with a mug of tea and a slice of that and you’ve made yourself a friend for life. My mother-in-law makes a fine coffee and walnut cake, but, despite my fondness for it, I’d never attempted one myself. So after much hunting around and not finding what I wanted, I decided to cobble together several receipts and see what resulted. Cobbling in these circumstances turns out to be inadvisable.
Average instructions concurred that one should chuck somewhere in the region of 175g of butter and 175g of caster sugar (equal measures seems to be key here) into the food processor and blast until smooth. This is easier said than done when you’ve got the butter fresh from the fridge and it’s solid and unyielding. Far from the two creaming together, what happens is a clod of butter coated in caster sugar chases the rest of the caster sugar round and round the bowl till you intervene and/or give up. (I gave up. The next step was to crack three eggs into it, which I thought would loosen the whole mixture up anyway. Unusually, I was right.) Then whizz in 175g of self-raising flour, a teaspoon of baking powder and 50-75g of walnut pieces. (I just emptied in the remnants of a packet I had in the cupboard. I don’t know how much it was. About 65g at a guess.) Every source I consulted then suggested dissolving a couple of teaspoons of instant coffee in a splash of hot water and dropping that in but I, having just made some proper coffee, thought it’d be better to use espresso, so glugged about a shot of that in instead. Error. Too much liquid. The mixture was now a gloopy sort of paste. No matter, I thought. What can possibly go wrong? Dollop the whole mess into a greased and lined tin, and pop in the oven for 40-50 minutes at somewhere between 180 and 200 degrees and all should be fine, I thought. 45 at 190 then? That seems reasonable enough…
It was this vagueness that was my undoing.
45 minutes later, I wandered back into the kitchen to be confronted by the familiar acrid tang of burning.
I’d King Alfreded it and the bugger was burnt.
It wasn’t entirely charred, though. Perhaps the middle was ok? I hacked it in two.
Hmmm… Not bad, not bad at all. There might indeed be something salvageable within. So I reached for a bread knife and sliced all the edges off, till I was left with two rather sorry-looking, small, square cakes which, to my surprise, actually tasted bloody good even if they looked disastrous.
But tasting good without looking good is no good, as we know. The first bite is with the eye and all that. Thank heavens, then, for icing, which covers all manner of sins. Another splash of espresso, more butter, some icing sugar. (200g and 400g I think it was. Maybe it was 100 and 200. I’m past caring now. There was definitely twice as much of the one as the other, though, and proportion is what counts in cooking. Just ask the Americans.)
And behold: cake!
More trouble than it’s worth. Next time I’ll just buy one.
I’m disappointed to note that until about an hour ago I hadn’t heard of Robert Liston, the C19th surgeon noted for his impressive speed in the days before anaesthesia, a man who prided himself on his ability to amputate a leg in under two-and-a-half minutes. Now that I do know, I have to share, for he falls under that admirable category “Men Of Whom Tales Are Told”.
He is the only surgeon known to have achieved an impressive 300% mortality in an operation when his patient as well as his assistant, whose fingers were accidentally lopped off during surgery, both died of gangrene after the procedure, and a notable spectator suffered a fatal fear-induced heart attack in theatre, Liston having got too close for comfort with his blade as he was flashing around, presumably trying to beat his personal best. Liston once also accidentally whipped off a patient’s balls with an overenthusiastic swish of his scalpel as he was amputating the man’s leg.
All this from Chapter 1 of Richard Gordon’s Great Medical Disasters.
I begin to understand Sir Launcelot Spratt rather better.
In the early years of this century (and, no, you’ll never induce me to use the word ‘noughties’) I lived with a few friends above a bakery in North West London.
“Ah!” You may say. “How charming that must have been. How lovely to be awoken by the smell of freshly-baked bread each morning!”
If you do say that, you’re a fool. It was no such thing.
From the clang of the shop shutters going up at 4am every day when they started on the daily bread, till mid afternoon when they stopped making cakes and pastries, there was a sickly, sweet, all-pervasive reek of dough. And it was horrible.  Nevertheless, there is something in me which enjoys the whiff of a freshly-baked loaf. There’s something particularly primal about bread-making, something atavistic. Bread is ancient, every culture has its own breads, there are countless variations of this basic foodstuff, and, I thought, I want a part of that. I’d like to make my own bread. The trouble is, I have discovered that
bread is a pain in the fundament.
I peaked too soon when I started making bread. The first loaf I came up with was quite, quite brilliant, a loaf which could easily be labelled ‘artisanal’ by a pretentious berk with a minor marketing diploma, plopped in a brown paper bag and sold for three quid at a farmers’ market . Easy, I thought. It is indeed a basic foodstuff. I’ll make more of those.
But hell, blast and damnation to it; I was wrong. Every time since that first Platonic ideal of a loaf I’ve made bricks. Bricks and bricks and bricks. I could build a bread privy out of the loaves I’ve made. I mean, look at this one that has just this second emerged from the oven:
It’d make a perfectly serviceable paperweight or doorstop, true, but qua loaf it’s hopeless. I discover that I’ve honed a hitherto unimaginable skill: I make un-leavening bread. Not unleavened bread; unleavening bread. I mean it looks all risen and lovely when I sling it into the oven, but 25 minutes later and… piff-paff-pouf, the blighter is sunken and solid, a great doughy slab.
I’ve bought Dan Lepard’s book. I will try again. I will report back.
Failing that, I’ll build an extension.
 Although the smell was horrible, I should hasten to add I’ve no idea about the quality of the bread because, in the two years we were there, we never bought bread from downstairs. It was a ramshackle old building we lived in, with something of the ale-addled, fag-stained taint of Withnail & Marwood’s Camden slum, and we had mice. And if we had mice the bakery had mice too. So did we want to bite into a baguette from downstairs and find half of M. Souris’s dough-encrusted little corpse scraping our teeth? No, we did not. Fittingly, the premises now houses a pet shop. I don’t know if they sell mice.
 You know. One of those London farmers’ markets. Near all the farms.
EDIT. I seem to be improving. My toast is better but my outbuildings less impressive. Which is as it should be.
Eat your heart out, Paul Hollywood.
Nigel Slater (Nigel? Nigel? MISTER Slater to you, child ) has just published a new volume of his Kitchen Diaries , as you’ll probably have seen. I’ve only cooked one thing from them so far, a chocolate and nut tart, tarte , or indeed torte if you’re so inclined (though I have found to my surprise that a torte is no more a tarte than a fort is a fart), and it was, despite involving far more faff than I’d ever usually bother with for a pudding , utterly delicious, in that artery-cloggingly unhealthy way most of his food is. (Oh, the cream and the butter he uses. Oh, the sugar. Oh, the chocolate. Oh ach, ohghghghch! But gawd, how lovely it is. I swear you can actually feel your heart slowing down as it stutteringly struggles to deal with, for example, that creamy-spicey-sausagey-basil pasta from Real Food, so much so that you feel you have to atone for your sins with a couple of days’ conspicuous salad consumption , but it’s worth it.) It’s on page 417 of the book and ended up looking like this:
I was rather impressed. Serve in small slices, though.
 Sebastian Flyte in the Granada adaptation of what Auberon Waugh in his Private Eye Diaries described as his father’s “gay classic” always amused me for no accountable reason when, naked atop a stately rooftop, he rebukes his younger sister Cordelia for her over-familiarity. “Charles? Charles? Mister Ryder to you, child.” I think it was the camp outrage deployed in the word “child” that did it. That coupled with his bare arse. Oh, and the fact that he had previously castigated his older sister for exactly the opposite offence. “Mr Ryder? Charles drinks champagne at all hours.” Inconsistency, see? He’s a rum ‘un, that boy. Shades also, naturally, of famed parrot owner Mr Rodney Slater. (“Buggeroff! Buggeroff!) I like Mr Nigel Slater’s recipes and writing a great deal and afford his books and newspaper columns all the respect and admiration I can muster. Whenever I see him on the television, however, I dislike him within seconds of his appearance. I can’t quite put my finger on why. He just a bit… well, a bit too prissy. I can’t be doing with that.
 I wonder how frantically dull my own version of that would be after a few pages. “Saturday brunch: beans on toast. Toast bread, heat beans, put beans on toast. Splash of Lea & Perrins and some black pepper. If feeling adventurous, plop a fried egg on top. Serve with a cup of tea.” Pfft.
 “Tarte au citron? Oh, the lemon pie, dear.” ABOFAL. Dinner With Digby.
 I made my own pastry. I actually made my own pastry. I’d always thought life was too short to make your own pastry but I made my own pastry and you know what? It was damn good.
 The sausage pasta receipt is on my mind (as well as sitting heavily around my middle) as we had it for supper last night. Tonight atonement takes the form of a carminative Hugh F-W lentil, roasted vegetable and leaf salad concoction with a honey-mustard dressing. Still very good eating, don’t get me wrong, but it feels a thousand times healthier, and, thus, to me at least, a thousand times duller.