Tuesday, 30 October 2012

First Meeting of the ‘Committee for Putting Time Back in Joint’

Scene: a meeting room in the Royal Observatory, Greenwich.  Two politicians, a civil servant and a scientist are gathered.

Politician #1: Welcome, gentlemen.  And madam, of course.

Politician #2: Don’t patronise me, you little sewer rat.

Scientist: Can we just establish what we’re here for, first?  As I understand it –

Civil Servant: If I may summarise the situation?  (Blank stares all round.  He presses on.)  An overwhelming majority – thirteen to none – seems to be in favour of changing the current regime whereby, twice a year, everybody in the country is obliged to alter all their timepieces by one hour, forward in the spring and backward in the autumn –

P #1: Oh for mercy’s sake –

C S: - and therefore that something needs to be done.

S: The answer’s obvious.  Move the Greenwich meridian west by seventy miles.

P #2: And how exactly does that help my constituents in the Orkneys?  Not to mention hard-working mothers on the school run who risk having their babies ploughed down by drunken drivers because it’s just too bloody dark?  Eh?

P #1: Very good point, my dear.  Of course, most people don’t live in the Orkneys, do they?  They live in Buckinghamshire, and frankly those I talk to don’t seem to think there’s a problem.  Most of them can’t go out in daylight anyway.

S: Of course, we could solve the north-south divide by rotating the Earth on a horizontal axis so that everyone gets their fair share of daylight …  (Scratches head.)  Hmm.  This would have to be done gradually, of course …  Perhaps on a weekly basis –

P #1:  I like that.  Could be a vote-winner.  (Frowns.)  Or a referendum-loser …  (Cheers up.) Good for employment though.  Plenty of intern jobs reprogramming satnavs …

S:  Not to mention online maps -

C S:  On a point of order, can I point out that we haven’t yet agreed on a name for this committee?  Or terms of reference?

P #2:  Can we discuss that over a pint?

P #1:  First sensible thing you’ve said, my love.  I believe they do a very acceptable Côte-Rôtie by the bottle down at the Snout and Sundial.

S:  (Looks at watch.)  Gosh, is that the time?

C S:  So, next meeting?  Same place and time, say April the first next year?

S:  We’d better synchronise our watches.  (Fiddles with watch.)  Right, mine’s synchronised.


Exeunt, to the sound of Big Ben tolling noon.

Sunday, 28 October 2012

The Whirligig of Tim

Well, having dreamt up that clever-clogs strapline, with the idea of writing something even cleverer about the great biannual clock-shifting fiasco, I find I don’t really have much to add to my rant of three years ago.  So just a point or three:
I’ve realised that the microwave’s clock doesn’t actually have anything to do with anything, including the microwave.  One down.  There are quite a few other clocks around here which don’t seem to serve any purpose either, so are not going to get reset.  In fact, I’ve only done two – the central heating, and my old-fashioned watch. 

Mostly, my life is not governed by clock time.  Sometimes, it is by other people’s, but that’s to be expected and is manageable.  I do need a source of other people’s time, but the watch does that.  So why do I get slightly anxious if I haven’t arranged my lunch by one o’clock? 

Adjusting body clocks (which I’ve just said I don’t need to do) is more difficult – I forced myself not to be hungry for an extra hour – but manageable.  Except for gintime.

Finally, what about that canard about ‘an extra hour’s sleep?’  Bollocks.  If it happened on a Wednesday, fair do’s.  But on Sunday morning, everyone just sleeps till they’re ready to get up, don’t they?   

Tuesday, 23 October 2012


It’s a fundamental word, isn’t it?  Spielberg proved that in ‘ET’, and I was reminded at Waitrose checkout this morning, when a mum ahead of me picked her little boy out of the trolley seat and dropped him, perhaps a bit too brusquely, into the body of the trolley, amongst the shopping bags.  He must have been accidentally bumped into something on the way, because he said “ouch!”; she did the right soothing sounds and motions, and he decided not to cry.  He was probably about two.  The checkout lady said something about not being able to find the barcode for one of those, and he broke into a grin. 

What I really wanted to tell you about was a serendipitous, if excruciating, pun I came up with later.  I’d been looking for H#ston Bl^menth@l’s excellent range of ready meals (not a sponsored post, honest!), in particular the fish pie.  They’d been relocated, so I consulted a charming lady called Kerry who pointed me in the right direction.  It was only on the way home that I thought “Pie?  Ask where.”

I’m awful, is it not so?

Friday, 19 October 2012

Invariant tags – we need one, innit?

Say I say “you like that, don’t you?”, or “we could go to Mauritius, couldn’t we?”, or “I already said so, didn’t I?”  These are all ‘statement tags’, which fulfil an important function in conversation: to request confirmation whilst not demanding it.

In English, being proper and rule-bound, we do this grammatically, as the few examples above show.  Hence our sentence tags are variant, being entirely dependent on the structure of the preceding statement.

Others manage it differently.  “n’est ce pas?”  “non é vero?”  ¿verdad?”, “nicht war?” and so on.  They’re all invariant, independent of what they’re asking us to confirm.  I could compare them to a shrug, a quizzical smile, a raised eyebrow.  Perhaps we British are not so good at body language either.

So welcome ‘innit’.  Let’s de-yobbify it, make it respectable and draw it into the language.  You can always pronounce it “isn’t it?” if it makes you feel safer.


Tuesday, 16 October 2012

Content and Form

There’s been a certain amount of recent debate, in the blogs I frequent, about literature, to use the word in its broadest, loosest sense.  On my last visit to W@terstone’s (where I must admit that, unless I’m after something specific, I tend to select the books that are displayed horizontally rather than vertically) I picked up ‘On the Road’, which had somehow evaded me for fifty years.

It’s a rattling good read, and I can understand how it was viewed as experimental, even revolutionary, when it came out in 1957.  Today, of course, it’s tame in those terms; and judged against the two criteria in the heading to this post, I thought it was failing on both counts.  But then, on page 64 (the well-known test of an unknown book), the following sprang out at me:

“I suddenly began to realise that everyone in America is a natural-born thief.”

Form-wise, even within the subset called ‘style’, it’s a pretty bad sentence.  You can’t ‘suddenly begin to realise’ anything, can you?  And ‘natural-born’ is a sloppy cliché.  But for its content, it’s a humdinger of a metaphor.  Is that what the Dream boils down to?

I wonder if Kerouac meant it that way.  I suspect he did, and that under the yarns, japes and badinage he had a deeper intent.  I’ll finish the book, keeping an eye out for more evidence.

Sunday, 14 October 2012

Gujerati(ish) cabbage curry

(Requested by Blue Witch.  The most appealing cabbage ever?)

For two with other dishes:

Half a savoy cabbage**
Half a medium onion
1 teasp. each black mustard seeds, fennel seeds, kalonji*
1-2 small dried red chillis.
Vegetable oil
Garam masala

* You can leave this out, but don’t omit the mustard or fennel. 
** Save the other half as cow bait.

·         Finely shred the cabbage and slice the onion.

·         Heat some oil in a heavy flameproof pan and chuck in all the spices.

·         Cook until the seeds start jumping and the chillis turn blackish.

·         Add the onion and cook until it starts to brown.

·         Add the cabbage and a little water and salt.  Stir and cook until the cabbage wilts, then add 1 teasp. garam masala.

·         Cover and cook in a slow oven (gas 3) for half an hour or so.

Saturday, 13 October 2012

Aubergine Pepper and Tomato “Moroccan” Braise

Viv was an instinctive cook, with creative flair, who rarely followed a recipe to the letter, never mind wrote one down.  So it’s not surprising that when I looked more closely at this I could see that you might have some difficulties recreating it.  As indeed she probably would’ve too; it was only at my insistence that she recorded her successes in this book, and then, as I remember her telling me, just as aides memoires.  I don’t think she ever made the same thing twice, except when she intended to.

I toyed with trying to convert it into a proper recipe, with quantities, temperatures, times, and so forth; but then I thought ‘don’t destroy its spirit.’  So here’s the original: make of it what you will.


I’d like to think the dried ginger and the sultanas made their way in there at some stage.

Anchovy stuffed mushrooms

(Requested by Z and Lo.)

This is a Viv* recipe, which I’ve never tried, but it looks pretty tasty, and very easy.  I do remember the richness – at a dinner party, I seem to recall.  I suspect the size of the mushrooms is important, so as to provide enough stalk for the filling.

6 anchovy fillets (in oil, drained, not the dry salted ones)
6 medium cup mushrooms
Olive oil
Small bunch parsley

  • Heat the overhead grill (preferably over a solid griddle plate).
  • Pull out the stalks of the mushrooms and mince, or whizz in a blender, with the anchovies and parsley.  Season with pepper to taste.
  • Brush the mushrooms all over with oil and grill bottom up until slightly brown.
  • Turn and fill with the mixture, and grill for a further few minutes until beginning to sizzle.
Good as part of pre-dinner canapés.  Very rich so allow 1 – 2 each only.

*For those who don’t know, Viv is my much-missed late wife.

Friday, 12 October 2012

Recipes – the rethink

Well, this afternoon I looked through that book of homegrown recipes I mentioned a few posts ago, and, er, can I back off a tad from my rashly offered proposition, please?  The broccoli soup was the best of the bunch.

I remember them, more or less.  Some were one-offs; others get revisited occasionally; others still have become trustworthy staples.  Don’t get me wrong; they’re all good dishes.  I know they are, they wouldn’t have been written down otherwise, would they? 

And therein lies the problem.  The writing down was often done in a state of post-prandial “that was delicious”-ness, and so was not necessarily as complete, accurate, or indeed legible as it could have been.  I’ll say no more, but my fledgling reputation as a ‘cook’ would be trashed if I were to publish some of this stuff in its raw state.

I don’t do failure, so instead here’s a plan B.  Select the dish you fancy best from the list below, and I will do my best to write it down proper-like and post it:

Anchovy stuffed mushrooms

Aubergine, pepper and tomato ‘Moroccan’ braise

Lamb-stuffed aubergine

Gujerati cabbage curry

Carrot and lettuce soup

Duck with apple

Gwyn’s cheese straws

Kidneys in mushroom and onion sauce

Lamb with clementines

Meatballs in Med veg sauce

Mushroom soup

Prawn stuffed peppers

Thai prawn curry

Belly pork with peppers

Quick pea and leek soup

Rich squid sauce for pasta

Roast squash and tomato soup




Tuesday, 9 October 2012

Measured out my life with Beatles songs

It was fifty years ago today.  Well, last Friday to be exact. 

Love Me Do came out on 5 October 1962, and briefly charted.  If I heard it at all, I probably wrote it off as a discountable Bruce Channell copy (which it was).  The closing down of my life in Leeds, the closing down of my university career, of tenuous or endurable friendships and red-hot or chilly loves, the strange sense of loss – music had to wait in the queue once again, for a while.  But a head was building up, not just in me but everywhere.

I Saw Her Standing There.  When I got back to Southbourne in June, Beatles were everywhere, and so was a music explosion, which gleefully grabbed me, shook me up, spun me till I was dizzy, and tipped me out.   I just bummed around.  It was great.  I went to the beach – sometimes the far end of Southbourne towards Hengistbury Head; occasionally on car trips (having passed my test and annexed my mother’s side-valve 850cc red leather seated Morris Minor for my own use) to Shell Bay, across the Sandbanks ferry, where whole days could be easily, indolently wasted on beach life.  June and July and a bit of August 1963 slipped away.  Eventually, I got a job on the buses.

If I Fell.  My first band, the Trackmarks, wanted to be the Beatles.  Well, everybody did.  ‘Mania’ says it: every so often, something takes over.  I remember us leaping around on Sandbanks beach one evening as if we were in ‘A Hard Day’s Night’, bothered that there were five of us because four was the only right family size.  And me feeling jealous – I wanted to have invented those chords!

Tomorrow Never Knows.  I think ‘Revolver’ coincided with my first joint, but I don’t remember this track as any kind of psychedelic experience.  In fact I remember it only for two reasons: being intrigued at the time as to how they’d managed to expend so much effort on this boring dirge; and wondering now how I managed to play it to my girlfriend in the back seat of the Morris Minor in Bedford’s Beach car park.

Strawberry Fields Forever.  Now here I did succumb to druggedness.  It had both of the elements of music I was looking for at the time, melody and sound.  And words.  That’s three.  Well, who's counting?   Right at the end of the fade, John says something.  ‘Them freaks’, as he later called them, claimed that it was ‘I buried Paul’, which was obviously nonsense.  The authorities insist that he says ‘cranberry sauce.’  I persist in my belief that what he says is ‘I’m very bored’, which he was.

Penny Lane.  1967: a long argument in the street outside the Piper club in Milan with Maurizio, the lead singer of Italy’s top group L’Equipe 84, about whether it was a piccolo trumpet or a speeded-up normal one.  I was right.  Happy days!

Let It Be.  The only Beatles song I actively hated when I heard it.
I have more ...!

Saturday, 6 October 2012

When they say “special”…

Trying to help Frances in her search for alcoholic rhymes, I bumped into a section in the Chambers book of Crossword Lists called ‘special drinks’.  Oh ho, I thought, that sounds interesting.

There are five entries: ava, kava, soma, haoma and ayahuasco.  I’m afraid I need to transcribe the definitions of all of these.

Ava and Kava are the same thing: an aromatic plant of the pepper family (piper methysticum); a narcotic drink prepared from its roots and stem.
Soma (leaving aside mad Aldous Huxley’s appropriation) is a plant (perh. an asclepiad), or its intoxicating juice, used in ancient Indian religious ceremonies, and personified as a god.  Remarkably, there is apparently a proprietary prescription drug which is marketed as Soma®.  Wouldn’t mind scoring some of that.
Haoma: a drink prepared from the haoma vine, used in Zoroastrian ritual. (see also soma)

Do you start to see a pattern here?

And finally, the magnificent Ayahuasco: a S  American vine of the family Malpighiaceae; a drink made from the roots of the vine, having hallucinatory properties.
Special?  Pwaff.   Chambers compilers? Amateurs.  I’m off to watch Magical Mystery Tour.

Friday, 5 October 2012

Banking: The Money Takes Over The Asylum

Up until now (1981), the job of the Treasury was to lend, borrow and exchange currencies in order to ensure that everyone’s interests were protected: customers’ money was properly looked after, and the bank didn’t expose itself to undue risk.  In fact, they had to end each day with a near-enough ‘flat’ position, which had to be reported to the Bank of England.  Failure to fetch up within the statutory limits would meet with unspeakable retribution.  (I never found out exactly what this was, and nobody ever asked; we amused ourselves imagining ritual button–snipping humiliations before a Star Chamber of hooded pinstripes, with loaded revolvers left discreetly behind the aspidistra, but I’m pretty sure it never actually happened.)  In a phrase, the culture was one of avoiding danger rather than courting risk.

All that changed when in 1980, as one of her very first actions, Maggie abolished Exchange Controls and the markets blinked and realised they didn’t have to bother with all that anymore; they could do whatever they wanted.  A very significant moment.  Not only could the volume of transactions explode, but they could invent new ones willy-nilly: money had begun its inexorable path from being the means of exchanging commodities to becoming a commodity in its own right.  (You know the rest.)

From where I and my fellow academics sat across the river, it became obvious that they’d need our help.  In particular, they’d need the computers to tell them what they’d been up to; which meant capturing the information as early as possible.  The days of filling in* a piece of paper, a ‘deal slip’, and passing it through a window to the back office to be processed sometime before close of play were gone – the deal slip had to be visible as it was written.

The trouble was, our computer systems weren’t up to this kind of challenge.  When I suggested to John, the departmental guru past whom all proposals had to be run, that we might have a need for one transaction to be revamped into another, then to be queued up in the back office for completion, he frowned for a bit, then smiled.  “Always one for pushing the boundaries,” he said.  “You do realise we’ll have to rewrite the whole lot, don’t you?”**

So we did.

Once again, it was seat of the pants stuff.  I knew how it worked by now, so I got myself a Test Team before I had a single programmer.  The programs gradually started to trickle through, in more or less testable condition but by no means stable.  It didn’t take long for one of the Team to uncover a trick which would infallibly crash the system, and would take at least two hours to recover.  This would tend to happen once or twice a week at around five to twelve.  As I was on both sides of the river, I didn’t always get down the pub with the Team: indeed, I sometimes heard the southern end of the conversation, which might have gone something like “….”  “Oh, again?”  “….”  “Yeah.  Couple of hours at least.”  [Programmer rings off, glances around the room.]  “Pint, anyone?”

Anyway, somehow it got done.  One of my fondest memories is of a parallel run, where a cloned and converted day’s live work was run through the new overnight programs to make sure everything came out looking the same.  It didn’t.  At about two a.m., Malcolm, the guy in charge of this portion of the process, looked up and suggested a coffee break.  He was deep in thought for a while, then delivered his diagnosis.  “The trouble is,” he said, “we’ve either got too many debits or not enough credits.”

Such is the stuff of which banks are built.  It did get done in the end***; actually, most of those systems were still doing the business when I made my final escape (eighteen years later to the day, and thirty years to the day after I’d turned up as a rookie on the doorstep of 67 Lombard Street) on 1 June 2000.


The remainder of my banking career was mostly spent attending and chairing various standards-making committees, which involved swanning around the world to meaningless meetings solving problems nobody else knew existed, whilst pretending to be important; I’m sure you don’t want to hear about that, so I’ll shut up now.



* If you were lucky –  as often as not the trade would remain on the dealer’s pad for hours, until he remembered to do his paperwork just before pub time that evening.

** I know how much you like it when I talk dirty, so I’ll just say that this involved converting the entire system from a TCAM to a VTAM platform, with old Assembler code being rewritten in the industry-standard PL/1 language – a classic example of my favourite intellectual concept, the inverted pyramid.

*** I have no idea how much of a contribution this made towards today’s sleek, efficient financial trading mechanisms.

Wednesday, 3 October 2012

Cook? Moi?

I've just been accused by my dear friend Z of being a cook, which I suppose I am, though I rarely do it properly these days, unless motivated.  But I remembered that I have over the years kept a book of things I, or others around me, have made up and thought good enough to preserve.  (The recipes I mean, not the dishes.)
So here's the first in an occasional series.  I will label them 'cooking', and you will get the original text: there's no way I'm re-typing that lot.