Warm woollen mittens

Despite the title, I do not bear much love for any form of hand-sheath – despite some of my ancestors making their living from glove making (the “g” is, to the best of my knowledge, not silent: though late Georgian Chester may have been a hotbed of licentiousness…).  I would prefer a world in which gloves and mittens could be completely replaced by the firm stuffing of my hands into my pockets: which, as a man, I can reliably anticipate having available, unless sailing rather closer to nudity than is generally considered acceptable in a public space.  Sadly, there are occasions when I need to use my hands – and I suppose my even older ancestors did embrace bipedalism, at least in part, to free their hands and may not appreciate my attempts to turn back the evolutionary clock when its a bit nippy out.  My greatest need to use the glove maker’s art is when cycling, as I am not one of the cool kids who can operate a bicycle ‘hands-free’, but need to have both hands firmly on their bars where wind chill further reduces the temperatures being experienced by my out-of-pocket fingers.

No, I am alluding to the librettical output of Oscar Hammerstein II (“This Time Its Lyrical) but popularised by Julie Andrews during a thunderstorm.  What I had failed to realise, until researching this post, is that old Oscar had a rather fine collection of middle names: between the “Oscar” and the “Hammerstein” his parents managed to fit the words “Greeley Clendenning Ritter von“: which may have been partial compensation for otherwise having named him as a sequel to his grandfather.  The mittens were just one of a rather eclectic litany of favourite things which Maria seems to have accumulated during her time at the convent but I thought “doorbells” might be too obscure a reference, even for me!  To be fair, I’m not sure it was Oscar’s finest hour poetically but it did have a catchy tune…

Having finally dealt with the important business of the introductory remarks, we can now move, safely and smoothly, into the main body of the symposium…

This blog, despite my somewhat erratic commitment to its continued growth, exists thanks to a return to a favourite thing from the early 90s: the writing of mildly amusing skits using pointlessly obscure vocabulary and references.  In those halcyon days, I was applying my muse to the minutes of team meetings and spoof eulogies for departing colleagues: now, of course, no topic is out of bounds.  This post also marks a return to a favourite thing from my past (from much the same era): baking.  In the distant days of the late 80s and early 90s, I would bake for birthdays and attempted moderately complex icing regimes.  I was also briefly paid (at cost) by a colleague to make bread pudding for her.

I realise baking has become rather popular of late, as a result of many folk spending their evenings staring at the haunted goldfish bowl to watch other people doing it in a tent (by “it” I mean baking – well I assume I do, I’ve not watched the show).  This televisual pimping, to the best of my knowledge, had nothing to do with my own return to the form.  Instead, as with so many activities, my return was sparked by an alcohol and Thai-curry fuelled conversation in the Guide Dog.  This blog has already mentioned the development of curried porridge which continues to be a regular staple of my breakfast table.

Anyway, it was while reporting back on the success of this culinary enterprise to the chap who bears significant responsibility for its existence as co-author for the original idea (and many of the other more foolish ideas generated in like manner) that the idea of creating hot flapjack arose.  I seem to recall he was somewhat sceptical about my porridge but felt that flapjack would be the more natural marriage bed for oats and chilli to consummate their long-standing, if until recently unrequited, love.  Never one to reject a foolish idea without putting it to the test, I spent some time researching flapjack recipes which I felt could form the basis for my new creation.  Given its origins in the Americas, I decided to marry the chilli with chocolate to honour the Maya and added in some dried cherries to provide a thin veneer of “health” to my creation: it was also, entirely accidentally, vegan.  I have to say that chilli, chocolate flapjack has proven a huge success and I am now onto the fourth generation product.  As well as chilli flakes, I have experimented with chilli chocolate (which I’m afraid lacked the necessary cocoa content and was purged in generation three) and chilli-infused olive oil to create triple-chilli flapjack.

While the flapjacks have been a taste sensation, they have been a little lacking in the structural integrity department.  Generation four was the most friable, indicating that the problem was the need for a wetter (rather than a drier) mix for improved cohesion: the base recipe was rather unclear on the addition of water.  This slightly crumbly nature is not normally an issue except that in the conversation that led to its creation, the flapjack was supposed to act as the tasty, load-bearing substrate for some 38 candles to mark my friend’s impending natal day.

I was clearly in need of a Plan B and so decided to make a birthday cake which would more reliably provide the necessary load-bearing structure.  I then began to worry about the ability of a single cake to safely bear 38 candles without the cake, audience and venue being destroyed in an almighty conflagration.  So, I decided to make two birthday cakes to spread the fire hazard and vitiate the need to have a bucket of wet sand on hand.  As it was boring to make two of the same cake, I ended up making two different cakes, though both retaining the Mayan theme of dark chocolate and chilli: a chocolate brownie cake and a dark chocolate mousse cake.  I had a grand time spending an otherwise dreary Sunday morning baking away in my tiny kitchen creating cakes from recipes I had never used before and which I was adapting (a) to include chilli and (b) to use ingredients I had to hand and was looking to use up (rather than attempt to fit yet more one-off ingredients into my tiny larder).

I was then left with the challenge of how to store and then transport, on foot, two cakes (plus a box of hot flapjack: I am never knowingly under-catered) to the Guide Dog to celebrate the milestone birthday.  I came up with a complex system involving cake tins, very old paper plates, slings of baking parchment, a fair amount of tin foil and a rucksack which worked surprisingly well.

Come the fateful day, I transported my cakes and enough candles to burn down much of Bevois Valley to the Guide Dog: which seemed to be tempting fate in a location named after a chap famed for dealing with a dragon.  As it was the evening of the Swing Steady Session, I did feel some pressure to participate and justify my presence with quite so much non-musical luggage.  So I attempted to play a piece entitled Joseph, Joseph on the house guitar.  On the plus side the song only uses five chords, though I did only know 40% of them at the start of the piece.  It also required some use of swing in my strumming while madly attempting to encourage the recalcitrant fingers of my left hand to form unfamiliar shapes across the frets of the guitar.  I believe I can report that it wasn’t a total debacle: there were no fatalities and I am unaware of anyone embarking on a new course of therapy as a result of my playing.

At the interval, I inserted the candles into their little mounts – from which they indolently lolled rather than standing proudly to attention as I recall the candles of my childhood doing.  A whole team of people then attempted to light them and it became clear that that my instinct not to place all 38 candles onto a single cake was wise.  Even spread across two cakes, there was quite a decent blaze going and I did wonder whether I should have found a little wicker figurine to sacrifice: maybe just a tiny wicker heart to keep a rather disturbing Mayan vibe going.  We settled for extinguishing the inferno fairly rapidly to avoid reducing one of the world’s finest pubs (it may be the finest, but I have yet to try them all and I’d hate to be premature) to a fine ash.

Burn baby burn

Danger illustrated…

We could then tuck into the cakes to discover if they were edible and whether my chilli dosing had been broadly appropriate.  I believe the cakes were something of a success: I certainly enjoyed the leftovers over the next few days and no-one has reported any ill effects from their consumption…

So much fun did I have, that in today’s less than lovely weather – I think even the ducks are starting to mutter that they’ve had enough rain now – I’ve returned to baking the chocolate mousse cake to enjoy at home: without the fig leaf of a celebration to cover the gentleman’s agreement of my hedonism.

Given my desire to support my entire body weight in various improbable configurations using at most two hands, I shall have to keep this restored habit of baking for self-consumption to a relatively infrequent pleasure: maybe once per lunar month.  While I was rather lazy today, not having the desire to get drenched acquiring ingredients not currently in stock, I think I may create a plan to bake at least one new (perhaps experimental) cake per month.  I could be persuaded to share the results of my applied chemistry, but you will have to come to me…

Living ridiculously

I sometimes worry that my approach to life lacks a certain seriousness – and, more recently, that I may be passing this deep inner frivolousness onto others.  This blog is clearly one vehicle for such transmission but I fear that the contagion hazard is far higher if one is directly, physically exposed to the author on a regular basis.  At the time of writing, there is no known vaccine to protect against such exposure – but I like to hope that in a laboratory (somewhere) scientists are developing weaker versions of the author that can be used to inoculate those at particularly high risk.  In the remainder of this post, I will use yesterday to illustrate the potential scale of the problem to act as a spur to funding agencies and government to take the issue seriously…

The day started seriously enough with an update on my mother’s condition: which is unclear but does not seem at all good.  I suppose this event might give some explanatory context to the rest of the day: though, I’m not aware of it having any direct bearing on my foolishness.

In the morning, I (or, more accurately, my robotic assistant) prepared the dough to make a batch of bread rolls.  These needed to be left to prove around lunch-time and I used this opportunity – and my desire to impose meaningless thematic unity on my life – to go and see an actual Rolls.  This rather fine, if impractically large, motor from the early 90s was delivering a version of the Queen to NST City as part of the build-up to their staging of The Audience which starts later this week.  This was a gloriously surreal experience as the actor playing the Queen arrived in fine style to be greeted by a class of primary school children and staff from NST waving Union Jacks accompanied by a few bemused passers-by.  The Rolls itself is was somewhat famous having had a starring role delivering other ersatz Queens on both our cinema and TV screens.  On this occasion, “Her Majesty” was accompanied not just by a chauffeur, an equerry and a footman but also by a stuffed, plush corgi: this final arrival, if I’m honest, rather upstaged its human companions.  She also came equipped with a rather modest sceptre, which I believe was sourced from Ann Summers: who, as yet, lack a Royal Warrant of Appointment – I assume the royals must be looking elsewhere for their expertise in sexual innovation…

The afternoon was spent relatively sensibly, though on bumping into a friend while enjoying the sunshine on the Common I did somehow become embroiled on a conversation on Fleming’s Left (or Right) Hand Grip Rule.  As a result, I did feel compelled to remind myself of the details: something I had last covered in the early eighties.

The early evening was spend at a Pint of Science event, among other things having my first experience of virtual reality in a fabricated Alpine landscape designed to create a safe space for cancer patients where they can improve their abilities at self-compassion.  After this, I wandered over to the Guide Dog to continue with the pint theme, but transition from science to music.  This is where matters started to spiral out of control and draw in, relatively, innocent bystanders.

The musical gathering I was attending is known as the Southampton Swing Steady Session: a reference to the swing-style of music being played.  In attempting to post about the fun on Facebook, I attempted to “check-in” to the event and in doing so entered the character stream “southampton swing”.  At this point, I did not find the desired event but did find the Southampton Swingers Association.  This, of itself, was enough to make me giggle (look, I did grow up – if at all – in the seventies) but Facebook provided further information which transmuted my titters into guffaws.  The SSA has not been the rip-roaring success that its founders might have hoped, as Facebook reported that only two people had ever checked-in.  I can’t help feeling that this is not enough for a successful night of swinging: you may throw your keys into a bowl but you will still find yourself driving home with the person you came with.  I was sorely tempted to check-in, just to give the other two members hope – but then decided that this was just too cruel…  Trying to put a more positive spin on matters, perhaps the SSA’s members are so busy swinging that they are just too sweaty, or lack the time or free hand(s), to update their social media presence with all their gene-flow high jinx.

It was not long after the swinging incident, during a break in the music, that a friend – and member of the musical throng – announced a plan to leverage his possession of an Instagram account to eschew traditional, pensionable employ in favour of becoming an influencer.  So far, so 2019 (or at least 2017) you may think.  However, his choice of the domain on which he was going to bring his influence to bear came as something of a surprise: cockles.  Far be it from me to malign the economic analysis of another, but I am far from convinced that ‘big cockle’ has the financial mussel (sorry, muscle), or marketing budget, to support an influencer in the manner to which he might wish to become accustomed.  Cockles themselves certainly have no head for business: or indeed for anything else.

His choice has the advantage that competition on Instagram will be limited (though more than 10,000 posts do somewhat give the lie to my theory): so the mantle of the world’s premier cockle influence is very much his oyster!  However, as a regular visitor to Dublin, I am all too aware that reliance on big cockle (even with additional support from big mussel) for your income does not always end happily: just ask poor Molly Malone.  She may have been immortalised in busty bronze (known to the locals as ‘The Tart with the Cart’) but neither her embrace of the seafood business nor her sweetness were enough to save her from an untimely death.

On the plus side, our proto-influencer did recognise that not everyone is ready to accept cockles into their lives (and more importantly mouths and digestive tracts) for reasons of health, religion or morality and so was also willing to act as a mouthpiece for the cockle’s more vegetative counterpart/stunt double: the chickpea.  However, I fear that the chickpea already possesses a range of cheerleaders celebrating its many merits across social media and the message about its use as a cockle-substitute may be lost.  Perhaps if each chickpea were given a pair of artificial ‘shells’ – ribbed (and possibly branded) for your viewing pleasure – it would allow it to stand out from the hordes of naked chickpeas not being touted as a cockle-ternative?  (BTW: I am claiming the intellectual property rights on the neologism cockle-ternative:  I suspect it may have applications beyond seafood.)

The evening’s final foolishness was the elaboration of a marketing plan for (N)YTMG originally developed on Saturday thanks to the ministrations of the Steam Town and Red Cat breweries (though remembered by only one of its parents, viz me).  In addition to the red rotating light, tea tray and guerrilla film crew (or at least camera operator) originally envisaged, this project now also requires a substantial cast of extras and at least one (preferably two) brass bands.  If we manage to pull this ambitious – and completely ridiculous – project off, I have hopes that it could go pandemically viral and eclipse any level of influence big cockle could hope for in its most fevered of dreams.  I like to think it could put Southampton and its music scene on the map (or at least a map and/or watch-list).

I think we can now all agree that the concerns expressed in the opening paragraph are totally overblown and it is entirely safe to associate with the author: both through this blog and in person…