It’s over!

I trust that everyone sang the title using their best impression of Roy Orbison.  However, fear not, no-one’s baby has moved onto romantic pastures new (well, obviously I can’t guarantee that, but it is not the subject of today’s post).  The title refers to the end of Christmas proper – though those with an inappropriately generous true love may continue receiving deliveries of miscellaneous birds and people for some days yet – but the rest of us are now in that liminal space that lies twist the supposed birth of the ickle Baby Jesus and the start of the New Year.  After weeks of build-up (or in my case, an hour or two), Christmas joins us for a few brief hours and then is gone.

I thought I’d share some vignettes from my own Christmas while the remain relatively fresh in my alcohol-addled brain.

Christmas Eve

A new tradition began and an old one was resurrected…  I think last Sunday was my first Christmas Eve at a gig – and what a gig!  It was a jazz session at the Talking Heads with a Christmas theme, produced by the Fathers of Christmas (a name the quartet will probably not be using at other gigs).  The musicians were joined by a singer – who was the only member of the ensemble to make a serious effort when it comes to dress – for several of the numbers and who, based on his youth, must have been a son or grandson of Christmas.  As well as jacket and shoes in red and black, alluding to the season, he also appeared to have spent more effort on his hair for the gig than I have on mine over the whole of the last decade.  I’m probably at least as vain as the next man, but am just too lazy to act on it: especially when it comes to hair.  The whole gig was so enjoyable, I’d rather like to spend every Christmas Eve with live festive jazz and friends – however, the timing of that particular gig means this would only happen every 7 years (on average).

It was also at the Heads that I was given my first Christmas stocking for rather more than three decades.  This might suggest that I am spending too much time at gigs or am excessively childish and I did wonder if it was a form of intervention: though if it was, I am unclear as to its nature.  The stocking was a festive “sock”, embroidered with my name, rather than one of my father’s unadorned seaman’s socks (he never went to sea, but he did have the socks ready) which served throughout my childhood.  I opened the parcels on Christmas Day, and there was one item in common with my childhood stockings: the tangerine!  The other gifts seemed a step up from their 1970s counterparts: I can now be musical in miniature, massage my aching muscles and study to be rock star with a Ladybird.  I consumed the very fine bottle of Duet from Alpine Beer on my return to Southampton, which slipped down worryingly easily for a non-session 7% ale!  Finally, the Lindt reindeer allowed me to test my theory that it is just a re-badged Easter Bunny: it wasn’t!

Christmas jazz and (slightly deformed) stocking

Christmas Day

On Christmas morning, I drove back to see my family through pleasantly quiet roads: something of a throwback to the road conditions of my youth (albeit with bigger and safer cars).  After a brief stop-off with my parents, the bulk of the day was spent at my sister’s with my nephew: the only readily available familial child (as measured by age, at least).  I ate a frankly infeasible volume of food and was a very bad vegetarian indeed!  I danced to Queen (thanks to a videogame, which frankly only monitors my right hand) and on the third attempt proved triumphant at Exploding Kittens (a card game: no actual kittens were harmed or – more importantly – harmed me!).  By dint of refusing to play again, I retain my hard-fought crown to this day!

I learned that you can buy your giant rabbit (he’s called Starby, if you want to correspond with him directly) a house made from carrots (compressed into a more practical building material) which the owner will slowly consume.  It became all to clear that my whole family (including me) is useless at Guess Who – the version where you must guess the name written on a post-it note placed on your forehead (top tip: this works much better if you attach the post-it note to a paper hat obtained from a cracker).  To be honest, given how bad we were I’m surprised that the game is not still underway (some three days later).  I can also commend my sister’s gentleman caller on the excellent quality of his light fruit cake: quite the best example of its genre I have had the pleasure of eating in many years.  It was when attempting to light a (Roman) candle on this very cake that I discovered how poor my family are at matters incendiary.  After recourse to a gas lighter, several matches and a tea light ignition was finally achieved.  I think parliament is safe from any repeat of the gunpowder plot instigated by my clan: I shall have to stick with the military option when I sweep to power…

The true meaning of Christmas: Easter and Guy Fawkes (no relation!)

Boxing Day

Boxing Day was spent at my parents and as has become traditional, a modest constitutional took place in a futile attempt to burn off a few of the million (or so) calories consumed on the previous day.  In older times (and better weather), this used to involve a hike to the nearby supergrid point circling home via the Christmas Tree farm but in more recent years we have limited ourselves to a stroll along the prom at Bexhill.  This was glorious, if bracing, but gathering storm clouds led me to forego the traditional Boxing Day ice cream.  A wise decision, as it rained pretty vigorously on the drive back to Ninfield: though this did provide a glorious double rainbow as we headed north from Sidley.

The day’s other major excitement was my father’s decision to cook me a vegetarian lunch.  His chosen meal required a very large amount of grating: something I would only have attempted with a food processor.  My parents could only field a manual grater and a rather feeble stick blender so I think my father and I burned off far more calories grating root vegetables than we did on our walk.  Despite some misgivings, the galette proved more than edible and, with some minor tweaks to the recipe (and better equipment), could well be worth making again.  In the evening I drove back home through heavy rain and traffic, leaving Christmas behind me in the east.

Building and sating an appetite!

Post-Christmas

Christmas itself was the first time I had spent two evenings not at a gig of some form or other for several weeks (possibly even months) and there was some concern about how well I would cope.  I can reassure readers that the sheer volume of food and alcohol consumed did mitigate against me running amok.  Still, to minimise the growing risk I did go out last night to see some live music: so I think you’re probably safe (for now).  Life should now return to a more normal footing, though gigs in early January do look slightly sparse at the moment.

Some might think my Christmas odd, but five people on each of the two main days chose to spend some of their time consulting this august instrument.  One can scarcely imagine how badly their days must have been going that they came here, nor what succour they took from their visit…

 

 

 

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Brands

I chose not to focus on the traditional ownership marking of animals, nor on Jo or Russell (the new Farage) Brand, but instead on one of the marketers’ primary tools for separating us from our hard-earned (or ill-gotten) money.

If I recall a little of the history I learned from the television, brands were largely introduced at the end of the 19th and beginning of the 20th centuries.  The driver was the very serious adulteration of foodstuffs with highly inappropriate (and unexpected) alternatives to the purchased product.  The brand provided a guarantee – in the first instance – that flour, for example, was actually flour and not merely an admixture of vaguely flour-like powders.  On this basis, the relatively recent mystery-meat scandals – which are no longer news, but neither is the fact that they aren’t continuing – suggest that brands no longer provide quite the guarantee that once they did.  Still, as a (mostly) vegetarian I could view the horse (and other, perhaps more exotic) meat scandals with a degree of amused detachment.  However, while I have been gadding about this week a much more worrying food scandal has broken.  Apparently, not all goat’s cheese does what it says on the tin!  Luckily, there seems to be no suggestion that it is not actually cheese (sighs of relief all round) – merely as to the animal whose lactation provided the principal raw ingredient.  It would seem that there is a shortage of goat’s milk (something which seems to have been kept very quiet, presumably to prevent a middle-class revolt).  I’m not sure if this is down to a shortage of goats or just poor productivity from the available goats (or both) – nevertheless, if you have a small piece of land, now could be a good time to put some money into goats (probably safer than the banks and with a higher interest rate – assuming you find goats interesting, and why wouldn’t you?).  No, it seems that the milk of the humble sheep has found its way into many a supermarket’s goat’s cheese.  I would like to make clear that I am not blaming the sheep here (though there may be one or two baaaad apples) as I doubt they have the intellectual horsepower to organise a conspiracy of this size – no, I suspect some human agency is to blame.  Or it might by trolls: well, they do have a long-standing dispute with goat-kind – something about a t(r)oll bridge as I recall.

All of this sort of stuff should be prevented by the Food Standards Agency, but I suspect they may be understaffed.  Their website doesn’t give details – it isn’t even entirely sure how many members it has on its board (though they are willing to guess it lies between 8 and 12) – but it is recruiting one new member of staff: a Field Veterinary Coordinator.  The brief job description is comprised entirely of vague business-speak of a sort normally only seen in parodies – but I’m still fairly sure the successful applicant will not be on the front-line of ensuring my cheese is from the correct mammal.  Maybe I need to insist on tasting every cheese in the supermarket before I buy – better to be safe-than-sorry, you understand (and clearly this is not a flimsy ruse to sate my terrible cheese-addiction).

Whilst on the topic of branding, it will come as no surprise to the regular reader that my supermarket of choice is Waitrose.  Whether this is because I am hopelessly middle-class (or over-paid) or because it has been (for the last 8 years) the closest large supermarket to my home, I will leave it for you to decide.  Over these years of use, I have notice a worrying and increasing tendency to support the “brand” with the aid of soi-disant celebrities.  This started with chefs – Delia and Heston – but now seems to have moved on to more general celebrity with Weekend Kitchen joining the ever swelling (tumescent?) line up of cookery shows that infest the weekend mornings on television (does anyone really watch TV in the morning to decide what to make for lunch?).  However, by far the most blatant celebrity on Waitress shelves is the heir to the throne, via his Duchy Originals brand.  It started with a few packets of over-priced biscuits, but now he seems to have his sticky fingers in almost every isle (or every isle containing organic foods).  He seemed to start with milk and then move on to eggs (and an obsession with hen’s tail colour – like the apocryphal Henry Ford, you can have any colour as long as it’s black) – however, this last week I discovered he has annexed mushrooms.  I’m starting to suspect that he’s not doing it all himself – and the kids don’t seem to be helping out down on the family farm.  Has he given up any hope of the throne and is going for commercial hegemony instead?  He comes from a long-lived family, so he can afford to be patient.  I fear that by the early 2020s, no product except those made by Duchy Originals will be available in this country – so we all better start saving now (or taking the Good Life route)!  I’m still trying to work-out how to keep a goat in a one bedroom flat without so much as a window sill (let alone a window box) for it to graze upon…

Skinning the cat

Before I am deluged with angry responses, probably written in violently hued ink and with appalling grammar, let me assure everyone that no cat was harmed in the making of this post (well, not by me – I have no idea what WordPress might get up to).  Felis catus may be a menace to our smaller indigenous wildlife, exacting a terrible death toll each year, but I really don’t think I could could kill one.  In fact, if I had to kill what I eat, I would be even more vegetarian than I (mostly) am already – except for fish: I reckon I could kill a fish (well, I reckon I have the stomach for it but cannot guarantee that I have the necessary physical skill).

No, we return to one of the primary purposes of this blog: me showing off.  Many, if not all, of the non-essential activities in which I indulge (those towards the top of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs) are performed with but one objective in mind: amusement (usually mine, but I’m willing to share).  Often, this amusement arises from the incongruity of me (of all people) performing the action in question – generally, in the hands (or with the bodies) of others, the actions would seem far more “in keeping” and so much less funny.

As recent readers will know, I am trying to retrain as a gymnast as I have heard that there are excellent job prospects in this field with very good associated working conditions.  There are at least two grounds for amusement here: (a) that I have started rather late in life on this career choice (I believe most budding gymnasts start before reaching double figures age-wise) and (b) my innate clumsiness which means I usually struggle to make it through doorframes intact.  Nevertheless, I am making surprisingly good progress – though don’t think I will be troubling the GB Olympic Committee for their trip to Brazil (maybe the next Commonwealth Games?).

The L-sit is a doddle, my pistol squats are getting pretty good, especially on the right leg (the left is very much my foot-of-clay in this context), I am perilously close to achieving the front lever and my dragon flag will soon challenge Bruce Lee (though he is operating with a slight handicap, being dead these many years – and death does restrict one’s mobility).  So, my latest challenge is the back lever. If you have seen someone perform a back lever, it looks frankly impossible – unless you are part-gibbon – but I chose to remain only seriously daunted.  The gurus at Brightside PT suggested that a way to approach the impossible would be to learn to skin the cat.  Now, if we go back 40 years, every 8 year old girl could do this in the playground without any difficulty – however, I am 48 and 6′ 3″ and this looked pretty daunting to me and I’m wasn’t very good at hanging sufficiently inverted to achieve the position (I worry about falling off or snapping my arms somewhere important – which I think is everywhere when it comes to arm-snapping).  So, in an attempt to conquer my fears and move ahead I did a little research on the internet and came across GymasticsWOD – which offered a route which didn’t look totally impossible.

So, this morning I took to the rings and attempted to follow Coach Paolo and move toward a flayed feline of my very own.  As you will all have guessed by now, I did it – almost immediately – and I can reverse the process.  After a few attempts, I can even control my speed through the manoeuvre and hold station at pretty much any point. I will admit that on my first few attempts the downward phase was fairly rapid and did leave me decidedly dizzy – but my inner ears seem to have learned to compensate quite quickly.  To me, as well as being amusing, this ability is little short of magical – if you told me even a couple of months ago that I’d be doing this, I would have laughed.  However, there does exist video evidence of me skinning the cat (though hopefully this will never become publicly available) – in fact, the first attempt at video failed and so a re-take was required.

Several hours later, I can still move all the important parts of my body – though my forearms are a little stiff – so I’m hoping this splendid situation survives the night.  There is a non-zero risk that my shoulders or upper back may be virtually immobile in the morning – but that will be a small price to pay.  The back lever looks to be within my grasp and I can then perhaps move on to the iron cross (I already have some of the basics here – but lack a high enough ceiling).  However, the end objective does remain the human flag so that I can molest every lamppost and street sign I pass – well, it was the target until I started researching images of the back lever to link to, and found you (or at least one person) can do it with only one arm!  This is, of course, one of the great things about starting gymnastics late in life – there is always something more difficult to aim at.  You also learn a whole new, and much less restful, meaning of the word kipping.  However, I shall leave that particular range of exercises until my return from festival frivolities in Edinburgh.

I have found that there is a potential downside to all this foolishness.  As a result of the training to perform such idiotic moves, I think I probably won last month’s gym challenge.  I didn’t mean to, it was just used as part of my training and (as it transpired) I was quite good at it.  I was 5% ahead of the nearest competition, but on Tuesday I moved to 55% ahead.  This may not seem a bad thing to you, but I have now been asked to form part of the team for a “tough mudder”.  As I believe I’ve made clear in this blog, I am not at all keen on getting my hands (which generally are exposed to the world) dirty, let alone my entire body.  It also seems to require running the best part of 12 miles – and I try to avoid running unless absolutely vital, e.g. when pursued by a bear.  I am capable of walking quickly and if more speed is needed I have three bicycles or use public transport.  So, unless we can replace the mud with some suitably warmed sparking mineral water and I’m allowed to use my bike – I shall try and resist the clamour for me to get tough and muddy.  Should I fail, you, dear readers, will be the first to know…

Roots

As a (mostly) vegetarian who tries to source as much of his food from the UK as possible, this time of the year offers rather slim pickings.  This was, of course, true for our ancestors as Ruth Goodman et al have made clear over recent years – though they (the ancestors) didn’t have the option of buying strawberries flown in from countries as yet undiscovered by Europeans.

Fruit is more-or-less limited to cooking apples, with an occasional and very welcome sighting of forced rhubarb arriving from candle-lit sheds in the shadow of the M62.  For vegetables, you can find brassicas though I refuse to eat sprouts and find cabbage too insipid in both flavour and colour to buy (oddly, as a child I also rejected cabbage but then for its excess of undesirable flavour).  Kale is available and has both taste and colour, but has become rather fashionable of late – and I do try and avoid soi-disant super-foods (or foods as I call them) as a matter of principle (obviously, any food clad only in lycra and sporting a cape would be an exception – especially if it were also airborne).  This only really leaves root vegetables as a local option in a normal year.  This year, being far from normal, I can still obtain locally grown peppers, courgettes and aubergines as they have yet to face a real frost – which makes for a rare treat (or is this a taste of climatic things to come?).

Generally, in this country the root vegetable is considered (at best) as a side dish and  often good only to feed to animals – though admittedly, even I have yet to try a mangel wurzel in my home cooking (not that I’m not tempted, I just don’t know where to source one).  I have made some use of carrots, parsnips and even celeriac over recent years, though usually only in modest amounts – but it is only recently that I have perfected the luxurious dish for which I believe they were born (grown?  bred?).  This is my take on a winter ratatouille – inspired by 10 Greek Street followed up by significant web research and a lot of experimentation in my underground bunker.

Please tell us this wonder recipe, I hear you cry (or was that just the voices in my head, as per usual?).  Well, as you asked so nicely, and it’s been a while since the last recipe published on GofaDM, here goes:

Take selection  of root vegetables (I used carrots, parsnips, celeriac and swede) and slice or dice them into smallish chunks.  My experience is that the swede should be in the smallest chunks – or it can remain stubbornly hard after cooking.  Coat in oil and roast for a while – at least 30 minutes and perhaps a little more (yesterday they had nearer 50) – at a high temperature (I used 200°C).  Once your root vegetables have roasted, roughly chop a clove (or two) of garlic and an onion (I used a red one) and gently fry in oil (I used rapeseed) for a few minutes to soften.  Then add a tin of chopped tomatoes, the roasted vegetables and seasoning to the pan and cook through for a few minutes to let all the flavours suffuse.  Meanwhile, grill some slices of a rinded goat’s cheese (I’ve been using Kidderton Ash).  Serve the ratatouille garnished with the grilled cheese and prepare your taste buds for the time of their lives!  Well, I really like it, frankly it almost makes winter worthwhile on its own.

It is also a dish made of pretty cheap ingredients – which must be a boon in these austere times.  It reminds me of advice I was given by the redoubtable Katherine Whitehorn when I started university (in a book you understand, she was not my personal advisor when I was a student – if only).  She wrote then that if meat was 70p/lb it was cheap while if vegetables were 70p/lb they were expensive: so eat more vegetables (I paraphrase).  Whilst the prices (and units) may have changed somewhat since the mid-80s, I think the advice is still essentially sound.

Meat Roulette

News over the last few weeks has made the carnivorous lifestyle appear a rather more adventurous, even risky, option than might have hitherto been imagined.

Either you don’t know what you are eating and are inadvertently enjoying a facet of la vie Française or you do and are now doomed to an early grave (please note that I use the word “or” in its logical or Boolean sense, i.e. you could be doing both).  This leaves those of us living a (mostly) vegetarian lifestyle feeling even more smug than usual – which is not directly a life limiting condition, but could precipitate violence if not suitable masked.

Bacon, now identified as only slightly less deadly than the eponymous nightshade, is oft cited as the one item the newbie veggie finds hardest to eliminate from the diet – though, I can’t say that its lack has been an issue in my life.  However, I bring a message of hope to any wannabe vegetarians out there, as I believe I have found an alternative.  On a recent trip to 10 Greek Street I partook of a dish, which as part of its delicious whole contained capers which had been fried in brown butter.  I have never found capers particularly appealing or interesting in the past, but in this form they become one of the tastiest things I have ever had the pleasure to eat: they were like perfectly fried bacon only better (like the quintessence of the brown stuff you scrape from the pan after frying the bacon).  I have now come to believe fried bacon is but a pale shadow of its Platonic ideal: the brown-butter fried caper.  I would not want my readers to go away thinking this is necessarily a healthy option – well not for the eater, though it is rather healthier for the pig – but it does offer a vegetarian (though not vegan) alternative to the morning rasher.

Another recent 10GS discovery is the marvel that is roasted celeriac – a completely different animal to its boiled version and even more scrumptious (if only I had discovered this earlier in the season).  As I type this post, my first experiment in celeriac roasting is underway in the crypt of Fish Towers – it will then be crumbed, mixed with ricotta, chopped parsley and one egg (to bind it, in the land of Mordor where the shadows lie) and formed into patties and shallow fried.  I shall probably serve it with mushrooms and something green (a seasick mariner perhaps?).  I have high hopes for this experiment in biochemistry, but there are always risks in experimenting on one’s self, so if you don’t hear from me again then know I took one for the team and another will have to continue my vital work.

Still, I am not anticipating an early meeting with the Grim Reaper as this last week has already seen a new cooking triumph.  I have finally produced a properly decent risotto (well, speltetto if I’m honest as I use pearled spelt in lieu of rice) with the assistance of Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall who provided the basic recipe around which I riffed (10GS should also receive a credit as I’ve watched them make risotto and have become much bolder in my method as a result).  It may be the best use I’ve ever made of a leak and a couple of handfuls of kale.

So, come over to the (mostly) green side, it’s a lot more fun than most vegetarians would have you believe!

Winterval

I rather like this neologism, but it is actively disliked be our more reactionary press and their readers.  I believe this is because they are upset that it has supplanted the “original” word of Christmas, rather rich given that the early church purloined the earlier festivals of Saturnalia and Yule for its own nefarious ends.  Even these festivals were derived from even earlier mid-winter celebrations, so the original meaning of December 25th and the New Year is hidden in the mists of prehistory.

I decided against erecting a circle of massive stone menhirs this year – well, I had a bit of a cold and it seemed a lot of work (added to which my garden is really quite small and water-logged) and so returned to the bosom of my family as has become traditional.  This pilgrimage entails my longest drive of the year as I head from South Cambs to a supergrid point on the south coast (in fact, the journey represents some 20-25% of my annual driven miles).  I drive down on Christmas morning when the roads are pleasingly quiet – and lorries stay at home (or at least off the roads) – which makes driving an almost pleasant experience.  This year my journey south was accompanied by the dulcet tones of Shaun Keaveny and PBC OBE thanks to a portable DAB radio and the AUX port on the car stereo.  As I crossed the Thames at Dartford, the river was spanned by a rainbow – which I felt must be at least slightly auspicious – though the toll booths of the crossing were still manned even on Christmas Day (given the low traffic flows, I do wonder how cost effective this is at £2 a go).

Christmas and Boxing Day were great fun, and I am able to eat to excess without having to cook any of it – though the period does emphasise the “mostly” in my mostly vegetarian lifestyle.  Having an (almost) six year old with you does remind you of the true meaning of Christmas – which I think is Lego, crackers and Mario on the Wii (recalling the gifts bought by the wise men to the Ickle Baby Jesus – rather mis-translated from the original Greek and Hebrew in the KJB).  I returned home on the evening of Boxing Day – waiting until the hordes have finished their desperate purchases of reduced sofas on long-term credit – when the roads are still pretty quiet, though the lorries are starting to return.  Given the rather poor radio on offer, I created a playlist on my iPhone for the first time (I have had the capability to create playlists for 7 or more years, but had not taken the plunge before).  This was rather a success: I may have to try it again.

Returning home has the advantage, and disadvantage, that there are no Christmas leftovers to consume – so no turkey jalfrezi for me!  This means that the festive season comes to a rather abrupt stop, though this year I resisted returning to work until almost 2013.  This didn’t mean I could loaf around too much as I had friends coming over to see in the New Year.  No visitor comes to my house and leaves hungry, or even well fed – no, no-one leaves unless completely stuffed with grub (I blame genetics and my paternal grandmother’s bloodline).  Such hefty food consumption does also seem to eliminate the hangover that might otherwise arise from having wine (or other suitable alcoholic accompaniment) with every course.

To avoid boring my guests with a medley of my greatest culinary hits, I decided to try some new dishes this year.  New Year’s Eve-squared (0r 30 December as it is more commonly known) was a relatively modest repast with a mere three – albeit sizeable – courses.  I once again attempted chocolate cookery – and even made pastry (a very rare occurrence) – to provide a suitable accompaniment to a glass or two of marsala.  This was a slightly worrying build, as the tart’s contents looked vastly bigger than the available space – but miraculously just fit.  Even more importantly, it tasted great – but I suspect won’t be made that often as it is quite a laboured process and creates an awful lot of washing up.

New Year’s Eve was an altogether more challenging affair with six courses to be consumed across the evening.  These included a very fine starter based on roasted squash, stilton and mushrooms; two years ago I had never eaten a squash, now I am almost addicted to the things – ah, the dangers of the mostly vegetarian diet (why does no-one warn you of the risks?).  However, the star of the night was the trifle course – based on a recipe by Nigel Slater (but in only half the quantity).  This was a huge rigmarole to make and rather worrying as it includes making a mincemeat sponge with no raising agent – but it is one of the finest things I have ever eaten.  If you are very good and come to visit, I may make another – if you are really, really good I may even let you eat a bit (though I wouldn’t want to raise your hopes too high).

In recent years, my NYE tradition has been to hold the turn of year celebration at a time of my choosing, rather than waiting for midnight as “the man” wants.  By use of YouTube, one can now have Big Ben, Auld Lang Syne and fireworks whenever you want – this year it was around 23:30, though it has been as early as 22:30 and as late as 00:30.

Unlike Christmas, I was able to live off left-overs from New Year for several days – despite sterling efforts from my guests to consume the excessive quantities of food provided.  I must also admit that at least one pig, one deer and three fish died to provide our end of year provender – but their sacrifice was much appreciated and only members of the plant kingdom have had to give up their lives to feed me since.

Many Winterval cards are covered in snow – but the country (or the parts I crossed) were covered in water, which should perhaps become a theme for future Christmas Cards – but now the country does look much more festive (I blame Charles Dickens).  This seems to happen whenever I try to leave the country by plane on business – I think the government should be paying me a decent stipend not to fly to Europe, it would save the country a small fortune in gritting and snow ploughing.  Still, until I’m paid off I shall continue to visit our European cousins – this week Berlin, where the maximum temperature on offer is a balmy -2ºC so I’m rather hoping there may be some glühwein on offer to stave off the chill!

Freedom is Choice

After I had seen the the earth troll around the sun a mere twelve times, I read 1984.  I suppose I may have been a tad young for some of its thematic material but I felt there was a need to hurry before the eponymous year was upon me (and then forever consigned to the past).  I don’t think the experience has scarred me and to be honest I can remember little of its contents at this temporal remove.

A few years later (and safely post 1984), BBC Radio 4 produced a comedy series entitled 1994: looking to the future of our consumer society.  This has stayed with me to a much greater extent: I can still remember the importance of 73%, Sellingfield, Executive and Dreamer.  I’m not sure what this says about me – perhaps that if you want me take your serious message on-board, it had better by carrying a decent quota of jokes as ballast?  Anyway, it is from this series that the title is taken – and in particular, episode 2 where the illegal social experiment being performed in Cumbria without the knowledge of the Environment (or so they claimed) is revealed.

Recent governments have been much enamoured of offering we, the electorate and tax paying masses, choice.  I can see the superficial charm of the idea: the public sector is often considered to offer a poor and expensive service and exposure to the white-heat of competition should make them both better and cheaper.  The worst providers will go out of “business”, as bad companies are supposed to do, and the best will gradually take over provision of more and more services.  In this rosy world, companies in the private sector all offer an excellent service at a very competitive price.  It all sounds quite splendid, but sadly it does not seem to correspond terribly closely to the world in which I find myself.  

The introduction of competition also begs the question as to what is the basis of the competition.  How would someone with a letter to send know which mail service to choose?  It is all to easy to imagine cost being the sole, or over-riding determinant, subject to any minimum legal standards laid down.  If you are a business in central London, I’m sure there will be plenty of companies vying for you delivery dollars but if you are a granny in the Outer Hebrides I suspect you may have rather fewer choices (probably the poor sap who has been selected as the provider of last resort).  In the purely commercial sphere, companies tend to compete for business that is profitable: though they do, of course, make mistakes like any organisation which involves people.  The mail is one thing, but in the world of commercial healthcare you will definitely want to make sure you have a popular and profitable injury or illness.  Perhaps we could find some less commercial grounds for hospitals to compete on?  You can’t directly use patients cured, as this would encourage the tackling of easily fixed diseases and injuries – and be no help at all for those suffering with anything incurable.  We’d need an amazingly complicated scoring system covering every possible illness and injury and the value of improvements or otherwise in a patient’s condition.  Presumably, you’d also have to keep monitoring the patient in case they deteriorated (or improved) after check-out and manage the whole reversion-to-the-mean issue.  All somewhat of a nightmare to organise (and keep up-to-date), which brings me nicely to targets.

The alternative to choice – or sometimes an adjunct to it – are targets.  You set nice measurable targets for everyone to achieve.  This tends to work quite well, people tend to move towards achieving the targets quite quickly and indeed I saw some lovely Stalin-themed examples of this process in action on Tuesday evening.  Sadly, the targets are usually met by neglecting everything else or by exhibiting a certain flexibility with the numbers (constructive redefinition of terms is the target seeker’s friend) or both.

I feel that both choice and targets are over-rated: one needs a certain number of each or the world would be terrifically boring and inefficient, but they should (like the Scotch Bonnet) be used sparingly.

Experience of eating out over the last couple of years has certainly offered anecdotal evidence for some of the benefits of having only a rather limited choice.  Since becoming mostly vegetarian, I try and stick to the ‘vegetarian’ part when eating out at a restaurant or cafe (‘mostly’ I leave for visiting or entertaining friends).  Unless my chosen dining venue is vegetarian itself, there tends to be relatively few choices on offer to the aspiring veggie.  This has required me to make rather more exciting choices of meal, straying rather further from the comfortable and familiar, than would have been the case when I had the run of the entire menu.  I don’t think I have ever had cause to regret my straying – and, indeed, many of these choices have made it (in some adapted form) onto my menu at home.

I would say that ‘Freedom is Limited Choice’, but that makes it sound like an exam where you have to select an answer from (a) to (e) – preferably on a basis other than the purely random.  These are very easy to mark – well, they are once you’ve managed to program the OCR successfully (trust me, I’ve done it) – but are a rather limited form of testing (though preparing the wrong answers when writing them is surprisingly enjoyable).  So perhaps I should go with ‘Tyranny is Too Much Choice’ instead.  Too much choice is also a terrible time-waster and so is probably harming our fragile economy.  So, here’s to less choice!