Tuesday 29 July 2014

And still we wait

We’re in a strange situation at the moment, on the brink of momentous change but unable
As much fun as watching pears ripen 
to launch into our new life until Other People have played their parts. After the frantic activity of the first few days of house selling, these weeks of limbo are becoming just a tad frustrating and the not knowing is definitely the hardest part. At least if we had a confirmed date we could be making plans (for Nigel). As it is, we seem to be in a perpetual twilight of neither one thing or another. Thank goodness I’m out at work five days a week. I don’t know how Dave is managing to calmly potter day after day.

We have proposed a completion date for the house sale, but don’t yet know whether this date is ok for our buyers too. We need to change dozens of address details, set up mail redirection, cancel utility contracts, and book a few days on a campsite in Hailsham for after completion. Hopefully we will be able to bring our departure forward by three weeks or so, but we ideally need to know before the balance of the boat payment is due mid-August or it might cost more to change the booking.

I’m still amazed by how much stuff we actually own – neither of us consider ourselves to be hoarders. There is yet more furniture to eBay and Freegle, and plenty of packing awaiting us. If you follow me on Twitter, you probably got sick of my recent repeated tweets advertising a small bookcase. It took four weeks to get a bite. If the folding beds, TV unit, computer desk and lampshades are going to take that long as well, I need to be listing them this weekend! But I can’t risk them getting bids in the first seven days and being carried off too soon. We don’t want to spend weeks ‘camping’ in a shell of a house – it’s just not the same!

Still, there are two distinct bright sides to the hiatus. (1) We get to eat our fruit harvest for one last year - This year’s strawberries have already been devoured and some of the Victoria plums are now yellowing nicely. Others are going mouldy on the tree, but I think I will make a good crumble or two together with the few Bramley apples. The pears are getting to a decent size – they have never yet ripened properly but always soften up and taste great when slowly poached in red wine.

And (2) the massive house clean is definitely still several weeks away!

Sunday 20 July 2014

We are proper caravanners now

And all thanks to the St Wilfrid's Rotate charity shop in Terminus Road in Eastbourne!

I met my friend Kerry in town yesterday morning for coffee. We went to Beanzz on Grove Road who do a lovely rooibos tea. I would also highly recommend their peanut whoopie pies but, as I ate the last one, that's probably unfair gloating. I had trawled a half dozen charity shops on my way to meet Kerry, searching for a pepper mill. Our nice wooden one is restaurant size so not the best thing for the caravanning life. Unfortunately, the cheapest we've found new is £9 and I'm loathe to pay that much, especially for naff plastic. Anyhow, I failed in the pepper mill hunt, but did spot this instead:

A boule set! I'm exaggerating I know, but seemingly everyone had a boule set while we were away. A couple of the campsites even organised weekly tournaments with decent prizes. And now we have our own set too. We just need to learn how to play ...

Sunday 13 July 2014

Portrait Miniatures by George C Williamson / The Hiding Place by Corrie Ten Boom / Room Full of Mirrors by Charles R Cross

Portrait MiniaturesPortrait Miniatures by George C. Williamson
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Shadow of Night, a fantasy novel which I recently read, made much of a pair of miniature portraits so when this book popped up as the ForgottenBooks choice of the day, I was interested enough to download it.
Williamson has written a brief essay overview of miniature portrait artists from the 1500s to the 1800s. Due to its short length, not many get a look in, but the essay is studded with biographical details and anecdotes about the works. The writing is quite dry, but informative.
The shame about the presentation of this book as a reprint download is that the great quantity of illustrations are all in black and white, and none are particularly clear. It is possible to zoom in, but not to make out the intricate details referred to by Williamson.

The Hiding PlaceThe Hiding Place by Corrie ten Boom
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The Hiding Place is another triumph for the AudioSYNC audio book download series. I'm so glad to have discovered it!
I was already aware of Corrie Ten Boom's autobiography but had bypassed it in favour of others, primarily because it is always publicised as a Christian book. I think this does the work a disservice because, although Corrie's faith is fantastically important to her, there is much more to her story.
The Ten Booms were watchmakers in Haarlem, an extended family living in a fairly small house over their shop. They were already known for helping the less fortunate throughout the district and I enjoyed reading about their pre-war lives. The horrors of the war are often told, but small details get overlooked. In The Hiding Place, the accumulation of such detail made for an interesting listen. I liked the way events were told with an eye to humour, especially as the little house begins to fill with strangers passing though. Listening had the cosiness of a aging relative telling stories and it was easy to see Corrie's attraction as a speaker post-war.
A theme she often returned to was how only looking within a small sphere makes huge events less mind-blowing, and this is essentially how Corrie kept her sanity despite the horrors she endured. Her prop was the religious belief she had been taught since earliest childhood, and the autobiography does overplay everything potentially miraculous, but Corrie also shows how quiet organisation, determination, kindness and consideration can mould many small deeds into a truly inspirational life.

Room Full of Mirrors: A Biography of Jimi HendrixRoom Full of Mirrors: A Biography of Jimi Hendrix by Charles R. Cross
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I'm not a big Jimi Hendrix fan and so knew very little about him other than a few of his hit songs and his early death. Dave had this copy of Charles Cross' Hendrix biography and found it interesting so I thought I'd give it a try too.
The book is surprisingly dry for such an outrageous star. The coverage of Jimi's early life seems thorough and is sad to read as family life was pretty much nonexistent. Violence and poverty are recurring themes with whichever Hendrixes constituted the household at the time frequently moving from one dump to another.
Once Jimi finds music and begs a guitar, he works for, and later with, a bewildering number of musicians. Pretty much any star in sixties London is name-dropped at some point!
Cross has obviously done a fantastic amount of research, but I thought some of his inferences seemed contrived. The writing style is hit and miss and I felt tighter editing was needed, especially for incidents that a cited on multiple occasions, but without recognition that they have been mentioned before.
Jimi Hendrix did certainly lead a fascinating life and this is a good rendition of it, but I think a stronger writer could have made this a greater book.

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Saturday 12 July 2014

Bailey is ready for the open road

I am happy to report that we brought Bailey back from John's Cross this morning with
Roses in our garden 
the motor mover not only fixed but realigned as well. The electrical fault turned out to be the isolator switch which, fortunately, was easy for the mechanics to repair. We took the opportunity to browse the store at John's Cross too. They have a good range of camping and caravanning gear. Dave is quite tempted by the inflatable kayaks. He did a kayaking course a couple years ago and there were a few places last winter where such a craft would have been ideal - the Ria Formosa at Tavira for example. Instead, we bought a pair of chocks, an elegant hanging LED lamp by Kampa for the awning, and two replacement ends for the electric hookup cable. Ours got chewed up when it didn't fit well at Humilladero so Dave's now swapped out the damaged one and we have a spare in case it happens again. We also got a spare Whale submersible water pump. This was more of an outlay at £29.99, but we are not sure how easy the pumps are to find in Spain and want to avoid a Sod's Law situation if our current one does wear out!

The only thing we couldn't find was a suitable table for eating outside. There were a few to choose from but most were family sized or way above our budget. We wanted to look at the Kampa Medium Camping Table. Sadly stocks won't be replaced until next week. We are now considering taking our pretty blue Gisela Graham garden table instead. It has a metal frame so is considerably heavier than a genuine camping table. However, we know it is nice for two to dine at and our wooden folding chairs fit it ok. Getting more use from it would make sense, but I think we will need to judge the weight against how much other stuff we end up taking. I don't want to find we've overestimated what our lovely new Mondeo can manage and find ourselves STILL crawling up hills being overtaken by tankers!

Friday 11 July 2014

Chocolate fudge brownie recipe

Cathy-at-work bought a pack of Thornton's chocolate brownies for us to share last week.
Chocolate fudge brownie 
They're very nice! However, daft me mentioned that brownies was something I used to bake so another team member, Ian, has challenged me to a bake off. I've taken the brownies into work today, together with the remnants of yesterday's Boterkoek. Let's see which vanishes fastest!

45g cocoa powder
60g plain white flour
100g sugar
55g salted butter
1 egg
1 tsp golden syrup
1 tsp vanilla essence or a little finely chopped vanilla pod

Preheat the oven to 150c.

Grease a baking tin. Actually I use the lid of an vintage pyrex dish which is just the perfect size. It is cm across.

Place all ingredients into a large bowl and combine until mixture is a thick sticky dough.

Press into the tin/lid and bake for 30 minutes.

I can't remember where I originally saw this recipe, but I do remember that it called for 150g of sugar which was far too sweet - even for us. Fine white sugar makes the brownies fudgier than demerera sugar.

Thursday 10 July 2014

Albertje's Boterkoek recipe

I have been listening to an audiobook set in the Netherlands this past week. It is The Hiding Place by Corrie Ten Boom and my review is the middle of the next trio to be published here as soon as I've finished one more book - might be a Jimi Hendrix biography, might be a novel about a suicidal American teen.

Albertje's Boterkoek 
Anyway, part of The Hiding Place is set in pre-war Haarlem where Corrie's mother is frequently baking cake to celebrate various birthdays. This reminded me of our celebrating a couple of Dutch people's birthdays by eating Boterkoek while we were in Portugal last winter. And that reminded me that I had never gotten around to baking Albertje's Boterkoek recipe which she so kindly translated and wrote out for me.

Boterkoek is more like a soft cookie-style biscuit than a cake. (That's the British meaning of biscuit, not the American which is more of a scone.) The word literally translates as butter cake and there is a LOT of butter in the recipe. I guess that is why it is a traditional birthday celebration food - one should only eat it once a year!

225g plain white flour
170g brown sugar
200g salted butter
1 tsp ground ginger
1 tsp ground cinnamon

Preheat the oven to 200c.

Place all the ingredients into a large bowl and mix together until combined. It helps if the butter is already at room temperature for this.

Press the resultant 'dough' into a loose based tin and put the tin onto a baking tray. My tin did leak a little liquid from all the butter so the baking tray is basically just to catch this.

Bake for 20-25 minutes until the Boterkoek is golden on the top. Leave to cool before attempting to remove it from the tin.

Serve cold. To be traditional, serve in slices, with freshly brewed coffee, to a gathering of friends.

Tuesday 8 July 2014

First caravan tow with our new car and some pretty flowers

You might remember, back in Spain last winter, we gave ourselves a scare when I clouted
Thanks for the flowers, Kim 
Bailey's motor mover on a high kerb and we were stranded at the roadside. In the interests of keeping stress to a minimum (a la Douglas Adams) I can reveal we weren't stranded for long thanks to a kindly German man with expertise and more-or-less the right tools. However, since we've been back in the UK, said motor mover has repeatedly failed to fire up. So on Saturday we set off from the storage place to John's Cross in order that they might take a look.
I was actually a bit nervous about it because I haven't towed since March and have hardly driven the new car at all. My 'bad feeling' was nearly justified too! We couldn't get the hitch thing to go over the ball of the new tow bar. The ball was too big! We struggled for a few minutes envisaging the hassle of rebooking the caravan service and waiting ages to get yet another tow bar. Then inspiration hit. If you find yourself in the same predicament, please note that it is vitally important to Lift The Black Lever. FFS!! How many times had we successfully hitched up over the winter?

We'll not forget again in a hurry.


We should learn what needs to happen to repair the motor mover tomorrow and fingers crossed can collect Bailey again at the weekend.

Towing Bailey with the new car was a breeze. Based purely on that half hour journey, I would highly recommend a Ford Mondeo Estate as a good towing car for a Bailey Orion. There's probably different types - get the dark blue one. There was a nasty twisty uphill, several narrow village roads, and some tricky corners, but it didn't miss a beat. The extra horsepower compared to the Berlingo made a world of difference. Plus the automatic gearbox makes slow speed manouevering so much easier. Great choice Davey!

Saturday afternoon was spent relaxing in front of Wimbledon on the television. Dave's tennis friend Kim came to watch the women's final with us. She arrived bearing a delicious chocolate cake and the pictured flowers cut from her gardeen. It was slightly embarrassing that we had forgotten to mention our now tiny telly, but we still had a good afternoon!

eBay auctions deserving of a mention are a small bookcase and the cupboard currently under it as my 'kitchen dresser'. They're ONLY £10 each starting bid and auctions close this weekend. See the eBay ticker at the bottom of this page for links.

Sunday 6 July 2014

Property Of by Alice Hoffman / Shadow Of Night by Deborah Harkness / Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro

Property OfProperty Of by Alice Hoffman
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I registered a book at BookCrossing.com!

I read Property Of concurrently with listening to The Postman Always Rings Twice from Audible. Very different stories but both depicting desperate lives lacking in both hope and inspiration.
Property Of portrays a year in the life of Girl, an irritatingly wet young woman existing on an equally anonymous Avenue in New York. Girl decides that the only way she can have any kind of life is by becoming the girlfriend of a small-time gang leader, McKay. The novel reveals their relationship, how Girl insists that she loves McKay and how he basically treats her like dirt throughout.
I found Property Of frustrating to read mainly because of the complete lack of ambition of any of the female characters. They all seemed to consider themselves as mere extensions of whichever boy had chosen them, even to the extent of having the eponymous slogan printed across the backs of their jackets. Hoffman briefly discusses 'belonging' as opposed to 'belonging to' and this theme permeates the story. No doubt such submission was accurate to life in 1970s America, as elsewhere, but I am certainly glad to be in a freer society than that now!
Alice Hoffman's writing about gang violence and graphic descriptions of drug taking was probably shocking when it was first published but it reads like a young adult novel now. Not that this is a negative - violence is always more harrowing when partly imagined. The style feels unsure of itself with sporadic bursts of genius hidden every so often. I believe Hoffman went on to write in a poetic literary way that I look forward to discovering

Shadow of Night (All Souls Trilogy, #2)Shadow of Night by Deborah Harkness
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I started with the middle of Shadow Of Night’s Trilogy, not having read the first book, Discovery Of Witches. Fortunately SON does stand alone, more or less, and any essential back story is explained so I had no trouble following the narrative. Deborah Harkness has an easily readable style so the first chapters flew by but lack of a strong storyline took its toll by midway. There are lots of characters to keep track of with a changing cast as our errant couple, witch Diana and vampire Matthew, travel around 1590s Europe in an attempt to track down a fantastical book, avoid fellow magical creatures who object to their union, and not be discovered by human beings. Except for the humans that already know about them. Which seems to be pretty much everyone.
We are introduced to many Real Historical Figures and Harkness is obviously proud of all her research into the period, shoehorning in, it seems, every gleaned fact and describing cities, buildings and costume in detail. However, while this often makes for interesting history, it slows the pace of the story right down and what might have been an exciting 400 page work is instead drawn-out over 630 long pages. Sadly, by the last 150 or so, I was mechanically turning pages, determined to finish after all the time I’d put in but not really caring about the outcome. Other than its sheer length, the other factor that lets Shadow Of Night down is its characters not behaving as their author insists they should. We are repeatedly told that Diana’s strange speech marks her out, but every character speaks the same way and I noticed very little actual Elizabethan language – even from a petulant Queen Elizabeth (too much Blackadder?). Apparently, time travel is extremely dangerous due to future repercussions from minor event changes, yet Diana and Matthew are bumming around for months, interacting freely with rarely any sign of discretion and 21 st Century Matthew is so appalled by his historical self’s politics that he is deliberately reversing situations engineered by 16 th Century Matthew – regardless of the consequences. Diana’s desperation to activate her witchy powers is abandoned while she creates an entire theatrical entertainment for the Emperor in Prague. Yes, the device is Harkness’ opportunity to teach readers all about such a spectacle, but at the expense of her main character’s believability.
By the end of Shadow Of Night, I was left with a strong feeling that a three-book contract had been signed and this middle work is simply filling an obligation. The quest meanders, lacking a strong sense of purpose as its protagonists are so easily distracted from their path, and it does not even satisfyingly resolve, as all is left open for the next volume. I won’t be undertaking my own Ashmole 782 quest to find a copy.

Never Let Me GoNever Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

As I live near the real town of Hailsham, I was amused by an early reference to the fictional Hailsham being a 'privileged estate'. It really isn't!
I already had a vague idea of what Never Let Me Go is about and its pigeon-holing as science fiction doesn't do it any favours. Although this element does feature in the story, I thought the novel concentrated more on issues of growing up, leaving behind childhood ideas and beliefs to become accepted into the adult world.
Ishiguro's writing is deceptively gentle. He jumps around in time and place which I thought was unnecessarily complicated for such a short work, but once I got used to the narration style it began to flow more convincingly. I liked that the individual characters of the guardians were so much flatter than those of the three main children. Kids do see authority figures like this and it made their later realisation of rounded personalities more poignant.
Another reason I would avoid SF stereotyping Never Let Me Go is that its powerful portrayal of alienation is universal among humans. By using his chosen reason for the students' exclusion, Ishiguro has enabled all readers to identify with them and with their society in the same way. We are not (or at least I don't think anyone yet is!) like the students so our own historical and cultural influences concerning race, gender, religion, sexuality, etc. do not come into play.
I would have liked Ishiguro to have developed his story more fully. At times it felt closer to a novella than a full novel which is why I have only given four stars. However, I think this is an important work that has left me with many hours of musing ahead.

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Saturday 5 July 2014

Pasticcio recipe

Thinking about going off on our travels again so soon has got me feeling a bit nostalgic for some of the travels we've already had. Two wonderful holidays were spent in Greece, firstly
Collapsed Pasticcio 
on the island of Packs and later in Skala Eressos on Lesvos. We both love Greek cuisine and so I'm attempting two Greek inspired meals this week. First up is my take on the mince and pasta bake that is Pasticcio.

4oz dried macaroni
1 onion
2 garlic cloves
300g lamb mince
1 tbsp tomato puree
1/2 tsp ground cinnamon
1 tin chopped tomatoes
2 tsp dried oregano
150ml Greek yoghurt
1 egg
50g grated cheese

First cook the macaroni according to the packet instructions and set aside to cool. I rinsed it in cold water to remove the starch, hopefully preventing it from sticking together too much.

Finely chop the onion and garlic. Fry over a fairly low heat until softened but not browned.

Increase the heat and add the mince. +Sainsburys had 10% fat packs on special offer last time we visited. Each is about 650g so we split them in two for the freezer. This recipe is half a pack and the weight is remembered rather than measured!  Break up the mince and cook it until browned.

Add the cinnamon and tomato puree. Stir in both, then add the tin of chopped tomatoes and about half a tin of water. I had a half tin of chopped tomatoes and ten ripe cherry tomatoes so I put all that into the tin then topped it up with water.

Stir in the oregano then bring to the boil. Lower the heat and simmer for 20-25 minutes or until thickened.

While the mince is cooking, beat together the yoghurt, egg and cheese. I've seen recipes calling for various cheeses including feta, but we didn't have any so I blended strong cheddar with a tbsp of grated pretend-parmesan.

To assemble, put half the macaroni into the base of a deep dish. I used a 2lb loaf tin for the two of us. Spoon the mince over the top then add the remaining macaroni in a second layer. Top with the yoghurt mixture. Bake in an oven preheated to 180c for about 25 minutes.

The Pasticcio in the magazine photo somehow stayed together in a block whereas mine collapsed as I served it up. Perhaps they put egg in the mince too? There were elements of this that I really like. The yoghurt-cheese topping was excellent and the mixed textures of the macaroni, mince and topping worked well. I was disappointed with the flavour of the mince though and this is probably the most important part of the meal. It was very bland, even after adding extra salt. If I baked Pasticcio again, I think I would substitute strong stock for the water and also add a little wine. This might mean the mince cooking time would be longer, but I believe it would be worth the effort.

Wednesday 2 July 2014

Globe Shakespeare play that goes wrong in Wales with jazz

I’m overtired already and it’s only Wednesday! After several quiet weeks for culture, we’re
going a bit mad now with four different events over five evenings – Shakespeare, slapstick comedy, Dylan Thomas and jazz.

Monday evening saw us at Eastbourne’s Cineworld for an evening of Shakespeare broadcast from the Globe Theatre in London. It wasn’t such a rush through dinner to get there because it’s now possible to select seats when booking tickets online – thank you Cineworld! The play was The Tempest which is definitely the weirdest of his plays I’ve seen so far. It always takes me a few minutes to get into the Elizabethan language but I’m sure I didn’t miss that much of the essential plotline! Ithought The Tempest was a serious work about revenge but there were plenty of giggles in the script. The Prince has a great sense of comic timing and Ariel was beautifully bizarre. I didn’t understand the Ceres and Juno bit although that dance was fun. And I liked that everyone was dancing at the very end – often there’s a back row of Those That Don’t! Special praise must go to the talented musicians. Their music adds real atmosphere to these Globe performances. We’re booked in to see the Globe’s Macbeth at Cineworld on 14 July too. Let me know if you’re going to be there!

Yesterday was actual live theatre with a visit to the Devonshire Park Theatre for The Play That Goes Wrong. This was recommended to me by my friend, Linda, and I’m so glad she passed on the news. It’s absolutely hysterical! In a nutshell, an ‘amateur company’ are putting on a performance of a 1920s murder mystery, but everything that can go wrong does so. To be honest, I was expecting to only be amused, possibly recalling a few unfortunate events of my own am dram days, but Mischief Theatre Company do such a fantastic job, I was laughing out loud all the way through. So was Dave, my friend Sally and, I believe, everyone else in the room. Slapstick comedy like this is so difficult to make work convincingly and the whole company were sharp and perfectly timed throughout. If you haven’t seen this play yet, do make the journey. It’s in Eastbourne for the rest of this week (until 5 July), and in Leeds the week after. Then there’s a lengthy residency at the Duchess Theatre in London.

And now we’re half way through our cultural delights and off to Brighton for Wednesday evening’s offering of classic Welsh poetry at the Theatre Royal. Clwyd Theatr Cymru are touring Dylan Thomas’ Under Milk Wood to celebrate both his birth in 1914 and the 60th anniversary of the play’s British premiere. I downloaded the famous Richard Burton BBC audio version last year and thoroughly enjoyed discovering the atmospheric village and its not-so demure residents. I’m intrigued to see how well what essentially is a radio script will translate to the stage.

We’re left with jazz and a gentler end to the week back in Eastbourne. The Alan Barnes Quartet with Art Themen are playing at the Under Ground Theatre on Friday. I haven’t been there for ages and am not even sure whose art will be on the walls! It’s amazing how fast my priorities are changing. We have seen Art Themen play before, again at the Under Ground, when I think he was there with Bobby Wellins. I’m looking forward to being transported by inventive melodies and rhythms to smooth our way into the weekend.