The only way to fly

Is, to paraphrase Westlife (you may like to imagine me standing up from a high stool at this point), without wings.  I am not suggesting that I possess some gravity-cancelling gizmo, but would merely posit that it is far better, to quote a marketing message from years gone by, to let the train take the strain.

Earlier in the week, I made the journey from Fish Towers to the Scottish capital city and seat of government, Edinburgh.  Living close to Stansted, with a little planning I could no doubt have flown very cheaply – or at least, apparently very cheaply, before the cost of such optional extras as check-in, luggage, actually paying for the flight, engines on the plane, a pilot etc were mysteriously added to the cost of my journey.  Instead, by using a considerably greater amount of planning and a detailed knowledge of the vagaries of UK rail ticketing (a subject which could probably form the basis of a rather challenging degree course), I was able to make the journey using the railways at a fairly reasonable cost.

In fact, I was able to make the journey in the relatively sumptuous surroundings of a First Class carriage.  For most of the trip, this upgrade allowed me improved legroom and a more comfortable and reclinable chair.  However, from Peterborough there was another – to me, entirely unexpected – bonus.

The East Coast Main Line has been through a degree of upheaval in recent years, and I believe is effectively nationalised at the moment.  As part of its move back (albeit briefly) into State ownership, the exterior of the rolling stock is being re-painted in the most hideous livery yet attempted on our liberalised railways.  The new paint-job has a pale silvery-grey background with a horizontal stripe and writing in the shade of purple normally only associated with an alcoholic’s nose.  I can only hope that this paint was going very cheap, perhaps left-over from some earlier government project, rather than that we (either the taxpayers or rail users) are paying good money for it.  Or perhaps, after all these years, every pleasing colour-combination has already been used and companies are having to use increasingly outré chromatic combinations from the furthest reaches of the Dulux colour-card.

In addition, the East Cost line recently garnered publicity (of a not entirely positive nature) when it discontinued the restaurant car service on its trains.  As a result, my hopes for snacking on the train were not high – and I had even gone so far as to prepare a packed lunch before leaving home.  How wrong I was!  Within 5 minutes of sitting down, I had already been offered a glass of orange juice and a danish pastry (an offer I was all to happy to accept).  For the rest of my journey, barely 15 minutes passed where I wasn’t provided with some new comestible item, or a beverage to ease their passage through my digestive tract.  Even better, all of this nourishment was complimentary – included within the modest cost of my ticket.  Even I, a man often accused of harbouring a tapeworm, could not have asked for more food – and that is not a sentence I get to use very often! The contrast with the offerings of our soi-disant low-cost airlines was striking.

One of the other great joys of rail travel, when I can tear my attention away from my stomach and its provisioning, is to stare out of the windows and watch the British countryside roll past.  Whilst the eastern side of the UK is not, perhaps, known for its exciting scenery – there are no great mountain ranges, canyons or cataracts – you do get to see a range of UK electricity generation facilities, cross four major rivers beginning with the letter ‘T’ and to see the sea.  As a result, I can confirm that Great Britain remains a green (and gold, at this time of the year) and pleasant land – if rather well stocked with rosebay willowherb (a plant I can only assume was introduced from North America given the fact that it has four – count ’em – four first names!).

After a slight platform shortage at York station – a place I had always considered to be very generously provided with train parking – my train ran a little late and we finally arrived into Waverley (you’ll have had your tea) some 3 minutes after the timetable suggested.  The level of apology this occasioned was extraordinary – as was the assistance to ensure that no-one missed their relatively tight onward connection to Inverness. Again, the contrast with the airlines was palpable – these never mention lateness at all, but boast to the heavens if the plane lands on time (or even early).  This boasting is despite the minutes (often tens of minutes) of taxiing that follows landing before one can disembark – and the fact that you then have a serious hike to escape the airport and a further, often extended, journey into the city which is your destination.  With my train, on the other hand, the instant we ‘arrived’ we had actually arrived and I could climb down into the heart of Auld Reekie.

Why would you travel any other way?  Truly (as I may have said before), if the Good Lord had meant us to fly he wouldn’t have given us the railways!

Serendipity?

News reaches me today from the Antipodes that watching too much television can shorten your life (I assume they have controlled for living upside down and the additional tension created by vocal pitch rising at the end of each sentence).

At the same time, it seems likely that, in response to funding cuts, the BBC will be scaling back BBC4.  As BBC4 is the mainstay of my televisual viewing, it seems that I shall be watching a lot less television in future.

A threat is revealed and then resolved in but a single day.  My plans for practical immortality (as opposed for my rather different plans for practical immorality) are back on track – I had already aced this week’s earlier reported requirement for 15 minutes of exercise per day.  I’m now jolly glad I re-organised my bookcase last week as it seems I shall be increasingly reliant on the print medium for my kicks (and the intellectual underpinning of this blog) in future and will need the extra room.

Still, for now BBC4 is still with us and last night saw the eagerly awaited return of “Only Connect” – the sole TV quiz I’m willing to watch: both for the challenge presented by its questions and the presence of Victoria Coren in the chair.  She’s enough to make a chap go quite weak at the knees (and in the morals)…

The Phantom Raspberry Grower…

of olde Sawston town (or, more accurately, village).  An homage to the Two Ronnies certainly, but more an excuse for me to boast about my green-fingered prowess (though I’ll admit I’m a tad more corporeal than your standard phantom).

Yes, today I harvested my first ever raspberry from the grounds of Fish Towers – and I can tell you it was seriously delicious.  Tomorrow, raspberry number two may be ready for my delectation.  Alright, it’s not quite commercial agriculture yet, but I would refer you to the common paraphrase of Lao-Tzu’s most famous aphorism (think steps – and not the late 90s purveyors of cheesy pop).

The Right Tool

Not a description of the author (or, not intended as such – though you may wish to draw your own conclusions) though there will be a rather limited autobiographical element to the post.  My journey into Cambridge this morning led me to muse on the importance of having the apposite tool for each occasion.

In the first incident, one of my unvoiced prayers seems to have been answered – or, perhaps this blog has a rather wider mustelid readership than I had hitherto supposed. As I was cycling towards the area in which, during the hours of darkness, I am plagued by suicidal bunnies I saw a curious moving shape.  At first I thought it was a blackbird hopping about, but then it seemed more mammalian.  As I got closer, I could weaselly see that it was a stoat – behaving as an archetypal stoat should, i.e. leaping around like a complete eejit without an apparent care in the world.  I have occasionally seen stoats before – but only at night and running rapidly across the path some distance away from me. However, this time, even as I drew along side, it did not flee into the undergrowth nor did it try and hurl itself under my wheels, like a suffragette faced with the King’s horse, but continued to play in its own little world – offering me Springwatch-quality views (though in glorious 3D) of its antics.  Given the idiocy of the local rabbit population, I think it will become a very fat stoat in very short order: for foolish as they may sometimes look and dwarfed as they may be by their prey, stoats are the perfect tool for managing an overly populous warren.  I do hope it brings along some friends (or family) to partake in the plentiful local food supply as I fear it would find leaping much harder when morbidly obese after bunny-based over-indulgence.  With my new friend in residence, I am anticipating much safer night-time cycle rides in future. Truly, nature is a wonderful thing – and I like to think that GofaDM has done its small part in enabling the exploitation of this ecological niche.

After passing the stoat I was soon able to continue my journey into town on the new guided busway – or, more accurately, on the cycle path which runs adjacent to it.  The busway is the subject of much controversy in Cambridge (but, I suspect news may not have reached the world beyond) and is very late and over-budget (though unlike the virtual trams of Edinburgh, I think most of the cost over-runs have fallen to the contractors).  I cannot comment on its use as a busway – as I have never used it as such, and only once seen a bus doing so – but the cycle path is a marvel.  Beautifully smooth tar macadam with no motorised transport (and its associated paraphernalia: junctions, traffic lights, motorists et al) getting in the way.  (The absence of heavy motorised vehicular transport should also mean that the surface remains undamaged for a good few years to come.)  The busway makes for a much swifter and more pleasant journey as far as Cambridge station for the Sawston-based cyclist.  Only two minor niggles: some of the on/off-ramps haven’t quite been finished yet and the bridge to cross the railway as you join the busway has awfully steep ramps which offer the sort of gradient with which we Cambridgeshire cyclists are far from familiar (I have had to use previously neglected gears on my bike when the wind has been against me!).  Nonetheless, the busway is an excellent tool for the cyclist – one day I shall have to try its extent beyond Cambridge to the west and sample some of the excellent pubs that lie in that direction.

Eventually, the southern portion of the busway expires as you reach Cambridge station and I was forced onto the backstreets around Mill Road.  Here I found myself stuck behind a very slow moving Ferrari – eventually, I was forced to overtake it (I did try not to smile too broadly as I did so – though I fear I may have failed abjectly).  Whilst the Ferrari may be an excellent tool on the track, it is really not at home in the crowded back streets of Cambridge.  In that domain, my velocipede, at less than a fiftieth of the upfront cost and with vastly lower running costs, is the right tool.  Not only was my mode of transport quicker, but in the morning sunshine I could work on my tan whilst the stiff nor-westerly I’d been battling against on my journey provided free air conditioning, plus I was obtaining a free cardiovascular workout (or as I like to view it, a free pass to eat as much as I want come lunch-time).

A triumvirate of appropriate apparatus anecdotes.  What more could a chap ask for?  I fear it can only be downhill from here (or, as a cyclist, should that be uphill?).

Danger, Will Robinson

As the robot said to the future Mr Lennier in the sixties TV series, “Lost in Space” – though, it would more accurately (if less briefly) have been titled “The Swiss Family Robinson in Space”.  Also, whilst it is the only line from the show I know, it was apparently only said the once – perhaps an indication of the safety of space, even when lost (or Swiss).

Away from space, danger lurks in many unexpected places as diminutive magician Paul Daniels discovered last week.  My former colleague, Sooty, was involved in a pizza-based assault on the conjurer which apparently resulted in a trip to Casualty.  I always knew Sooty was passive-aggressive, all that whispering to a trusted confidant rather than just speaking up and tackling issues head-on was an obvious give-away. However, after a little incitement it all seems to have kicked-off (quite impressive when you lack legs) and the “passive” was forgotten.  I think the lesson to learn here is to be very careful before you cross a glove puppet (just ask Michael Parkinson).  I assume it can only be a matter of days before unscrupulous lawyers are using low-budget TV reconstructions to elicit our claims for compensation after our own puppet-based injuries.  I fear this may be the end of the road (or pier) for Mr Punch (though Judy should be in line for a decent pay-out).

As an adult, I go to some trouble to avoid danger, or at least those locations and activities where I perceive it to reside, and a recent recollection from my childhood makes me think this was perhaps always true (or, at least, that is the more innocent explanation for the tale I am about to expound).

I believe the young of today will place posters of sporting heroes, pop stars or other soi-disant celebrities upon the walls of their bedrooms – and I believe a broadly similar situation held sway back in the 1970s.   But, not in my boudoir… (OK, I’ll admit only women are really allowed a boudoir – but you’ve got to love the idea of a special room for sulking).   So far as I can remember, my bedroom walls held only two posters – both produced by the Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents (RoSPA).  One had details of all the UK’s deadliest plants and the effects of their ingestion and the other provided similar information about our most inimical fungi.

At this temporal remove, I can no longer recall why the younger ‘me’ chose to keep these on his walls, rather than posters covering some more traditional subject matter.  I am forced to assume that either I was unduly concerned about eating something deadly from the plant or fungal realm (perhaps I was expecting to be poisoned?), or that I was planning a career as a poisoner.  I don’t remember any suspicious deaths in my immediate social circle during my teenage years, though we did have to move immediately after I finished my A levels… (but I’m sure that was entirely unrelated).   Any attempts to poison me have also clearly failed: not sure whether this was down to the posters, my cast-iron constitution or incompetence on the part of my would-be assassin. Still, you can never be too careful…

Match point

Back in Autumn 2007, NASA launched its Dawn probe as a gift to writers of the double-entendre wherever in the world English is spoken and the Carry-On films enjoyed.  Its rather more than five year mission is unlikely to find any new worlds or civilisations but will take it around a couple of the solar system’s larger asteroids (ooh-er, missus).

Dawn is not the nippiest of satellites, it can apparently manage 0-60mph in 4 days – so you wouldn’t want to try overtaking on a busy A-road using its ion drive.  However, unlike a harder-accelerating family hatchback it can keep accelerating for a very long time to achieve seriously high velocities (easily exceeding 10,000 mph for the patient driver).

It has now slowed down to an A-road friendly relative velocity and is surveying its first target: Vesta.   It has been sending back splendid black and white shots of this asteroid, which have been raising some questions in the astronomy community.  Vesta has a large ‘crater’ at one end and some rather serious scratch-marks around the middle – and no-one seems to know why.

Well, I believe I can answer this question: surely it was where Vesta was struck against the box?  Any Swan could tell you that!

…and relax

The last few weeks have been an exhausting whirl with festivals of comedy and music parting me from my usual life of abnegation.  So many nights out past my usual bedtime; so many nights out, period (or, in this case, exclamation mark)!

With the festival season over in Cambridge, my annual pilgrimage to Edinburgh looms, like a giant weaving machine, on the horizon.  Even more comedy and music crammed into even fewer days.  Will I survive the cultural onslaught?

The signs are not entirely positive – a couple of weeks ago I kept acquiring minor finger-based injuries, and this week my shins are acquiring stray wounds.  It is often said that where sense is absent, there is an associated lack of feeling.  This may well be true as whilst I could recall a few of the incidents that led to damage to my phalanges, I have no memory at all of any of those that led to the tibial damage.

So, in this intra-festive lacuna I have decided that I need a rest (and not just to make a tricky snooker shot) before descending once more into the fray.  I also have a stack of BBC4 documentaries to catch up on: the pseudo-intellectual trappings of this blog have to come from somewhere, you know.  As a result, I have tried to spend this week taking it easy – but have discovered (once again) that I’m really not very good at it.  My best attempts at loafing have resulted in a loaf (of bread) and the sharing of my loaf-based secrets with the world (or at least the readers of GofaDM).

I comforted myself with the knowledge that my failure to rest had at least meant that a number of long-outstanding errands had been completed.  However, reference to Mr Collins (the publisher of my dictionary rather than the heir to Longbourn) suggests that an errand requires a trip (in the sense of journey rather than a fall – though I suppose that would also be a journey) of some form – so it seems that I have merely “done some stuff”. When I come to think about the main “stuff” done, viz re-arranging my bookcase to increase the accessibility of my extensive library (including the sorting of the fiction alphabetically by author) and tidying up the wires behind the TV, it does seem worryingly to represent classic displacement activity.  Since relaxation is what I was supposed to be doing, it would seem that at some subconscious level I have some objection to chillin’ (as I believe the kids of a decade or two ago would have said) and am desperately seeking alternatives to avoid it.  I rather fear therapy beckons: with all too much material into which the followers of Freud or Jung could sink their metaphorical teeth (in my, entirely untrained, opinion and, in a nod to Clement’s grandfather, I blame my mother).

Then again, who needs a man with a mittel-European accent and a couch? I have a blog! What more therapy can any man need?  Or, indeed, how much more displacement activity?  If any readers should care to proffer a diagnosis (I will require you to show your working) or text-based therapy, they should feel entirely free to do so – whilst recognising that I shall feel equally free to ignore it!

221B

Oh, yes – this post will be a baker’s treat!  (Please feel free to hum the relevant piece by the late Gerry Rafferty at this stage if it will help to calm you).

This post represents somewhat of a Gérard (French film-star rhyming slang for departure.  You wait, it will catch on) from the norm in that for the first time it will tread upon the toes of the sainted Delia.  No, the post will not be haranguing the home support at Carrow Road whilst tired and emotional but will instead offer up a recipe.  GofaDM is a blog of its word (its many words; its many, many words) and in return for the technique to including Antonín Leopold Dvořák’s fully accented name within a post, I promised to reveal the secret of my wholemeal fruity spelt loaf – so here goes…

First, catch your spelt… oh, hang on a mo, that’s Mrs Beeton isn’t it?  Back to La Smith…

You will need the following:

  • 1.5 teaspoons of yeast (I have been using Dove Farm)
  • 500g (or 18oz) of wholemeal spelt flour (I use Sharpham Park)
  • 1 tablespoon of local honey
  • 3 tablespoons of oil (I use Farmer Brown’s rapeseed oil)
  • 1 teaspoon of Maldon sea salt
  • At least 6oz of dried fruit (I use a mix of raisins, sultanas and peel)
  • 1 oz (or so) of chopped nuts (I’m thinking of upping the nuts in the next incarnation, but that was all I had in the store cupboard last time)
  • 3 teaspoons of mixed spice
  • 360 ml of water (I use tap)

Place all the ingredients into the breadmaker in the normal way.  You will need to use the rye bread kneading blade (if you have one) as spelt flour is quite dense and the poor motor may struggle if using the wheat blade.  On the Panasonic SD-255, I use the Rye Bake programme which takes 3.5 hours to run but for other breadmakers you should seek an equivalent.

Depending on the sheer weight of fruit and nuts included, the loaf may be produced with a flat or even slightly sunken top, however, the shape does not affect its moreish deliciousness. The loaf also freezes quite successfully, if you are able to resist devouring the entire thing in a single sitting.  So, as Ecclesiastes (apparently, the book of the Old Testament covering bakery – certainly, I would expect some reference to the Eccles cake given the title) says, “Go thy way, eat thy bread with joy, and drink thy wine with merry heart” – I’d suggest white or rosé, or even a pudding wine (though, the OT doesn’t actually specify).

Animal Crackers

I have known about the desire of some creatures for self-immolation since reading “archy and mehitabel” in the late 1970s – and, in particular, the “lesson of the moth” from 1927. But, as I have discovered over the last few weeks, moths are far from the only animals to seek a rapid escape from this veil of tears.

Infamously, lemmings are supposed to hurl themselves from cliffs – though I believe this is a foul slur propagated by the Disney corporation, who could find themselves in a whole heap of trouble if the rodents ever get lawyered-up (as I believe our American cousins would have it).

However, I refer to creatures rather closer to home – and which I encounter on my bicycle while trolling to and from Cambridge of an evening.  Unlike the electric light bulb which lured Archy’s moth to its untimely end, it is the siren song of the cycle path between Addenbrooke’s and Shelford which has led many a creature to its doom.

In dry weather and generally in the hours of daylight, a host of black beetles scurry across the cycle path – and more than a few succumb to the tyres of a passing bike – but, it is in the hours of darkness where the death toll really rises.  After any rainfall, snails to the left of the cycle path find a pressing need to visit the right, whilst those on the right feel compelled to sample the delights that they believe lie concealed on the left side.  I will admit that as a member of the human race, it is slightly unfair to cast aspersions on snails for this particular behaviour – one has only to look at any major trunk road to find people doing the self-same thing.

Snails are not known for their rapid motion and many hundreds (possibly thousands) choose to make this perilous journey after the sun has set.  As a result, my journey home is punctuated with sharp ‘cracks’ as each snail explodes under my wheel – and at times, these cracks can be so frequent as to resemble the fire from a Maxim gun.  I do not deliberately try and hit the molluscs – though do take some obscure pleasure in their destruction, viewing it is a form of weregild for the plants their kin have destroyed at Fish Towers.  Also, on the plus side, the snails are only endangering themselves – it would require a very large snail indeed to be a serious risk to the passing cyclist (and the Giant African Land snail – achatina achatina – is largely unknown in Cambridgeshire).

Rabbits though are a very different story.  These can be seen at all times – but in the greatest numbers after dusk.  Unlike those creatures lacking a backbone, the rabbits do not spend a significant amount of time on the cycle path itself.  No, as I cycle past, bunnies will stop whatever they are doing in an adjacent field and run tens of yards in order to hurl themselves under the wheels of my velocipede.  They are not easily dissuaded from this action.  Try to dodge them as I might, they are determined to end it all and that I should be the instrument of their destruction.  I’ve tried whistling, singing and extensive use of my bell (well, less mine and more the one fitted to the bicycle – I wouldn’t want you to imagine me accoutered like an Alpine cow as I cycle) – but this only seems to encourage the little blighters to seek oblivion at my wheels.   I know I tend to wear quite dark clothes but I have yet to carry a scythe and wear a cloak while cycling (to be honest, they would add too much wind resistance) and tend to wear at least some fluorescent garb at night, so I struggle to see why I am considered the coney angel of death.  I fear that whilst striking a rabbit would allow it to achieve its aim, it might also unseat me leading to unwanted bruising and abrasions.  Trains can be fitted with a cow-catcher to remove recalcitrant ungulates from the track in areas where they are a problem, but I have yet to see a coney-catcher accessory for the country biker.

I also fail to understand how rabbits have become so numerous (despite their legendary rate of reproduction) given their tendency to throw themselves at any perceived threat or potential predator.  Surely, evolution is supposed to weed out this sort of foolishness from a genome pretty rapidly.  I think Richard Dawkins is local – perhaps I should challenge him with this particular conundrum.  Is the stupidity of rabbits the unequivocal proof of the divine that so many have been seeking?

Baking

Whilst the title could be an allusion to some of the temperatures ‘enjoyed’ in the environs of Sawston over the last week (conditions that, according to our friends at the Met Office, will not continue to be enjoyed over the week that is to come), it is, in fact, a reference to the culinary arts.  Indeed, given the all too frequent downpours which were so much a part of the past week’s weather, a more apposite culinary reference to recent climatic events would have been to steaming or use of the bain marie.

Regular readers – as well as needing to get out more – may well be aware of my love of cake and other expressions of the baker’s art.  I refer here, of course, to the individual or artisan baker here – rather than to the mass produced rubbish that passes for cake in so many commercial outlets.  Now, I am more than capable of baking but, perhaps as a consequence of my inner puritan, tend to feel that making cakes for myself is rather louche – so usually only bake when I am entertaining (yes, I know you dear readers are still waiting for this circumstance to occur).

There are a couple of exceptions to my ascetic home life.  I do make a rather fine (and, to me at least, somewhat addictive) bread pudding – indeed, in my youth did so commercially on a very small scale – using store-bought bread made using the Chorleywood process.  I tend to use Hovis as the primary raw material because a) they use British wheat and b) it amuses me to think of a Yorkshire youth pushing his bicycle up a steep cobbled street to the accompaniment of Dvorák’s symphonic homage to the United States (now, there’s juxtaposition for you!).

I also have a bread maker (a machine, rather than a member of my household staff) and so make my own eating (as opposed to cooking) bread.  Recent scientific advances have led to the creation of a wholemeal spelt fruit loaf which is rapidly supplanting bread pudding in my affections.  This recipe was developed from a model provided by the Panasonic corporation but with a number of tweaks – the most significant of which was substantially upping the dried fruit content and adding nuts.  Nevertheless, I am always on the look out for a new cake emporium…

Last night I was in the packed chapel of Corpus Christi college, as part of the Cambridge Summer Music Festival, listening to pianist Libor Novacek play a programme which (uniquely, in my limited experience) combined Brahms and Liszt.  You will be pleased to know that despite this provocation, I limited myself to a glass of elderflower pressé in the interval.  The concert was stunning – especially the closing Liszt piano sonata (in B minor), though I do feel sorry for the poor chap’s abused fingers.  Conversation with the lady sitting to my left during gaps in the programme yielded the secret of a local, and somewhat hidden, tea room which apparently serves a wide range of excellent, home-made cakes and scones.  Any sort of fine weather which may be delivered by the week ahead will definitely call for a ride out to Grantchester to investigate…