Wednesday, 28 June 2017

Still Dancing

It's past midnight and I'm sitting in my kitchen with a glass of wine and listening to some tunes wondering where the time has gone. Two of my teenage girls are out at an end of A levels exams party (aka massive messy piss-up) while the third is tucked up in bed getting some zeds before another long hard day at the Donkey Sanctuary shovelling shit (work experience...preparation for life...Lord knows, there's a lot of shit shovelling to be done). It's strange but I have an intense feeling of sadness. The social media feeds will be full and throbbing - endless photos of young people enjoying the time of their lives. It never comes without pain and heartache, but their lives are ahead of them and they're enjoying the moment. When you're nudging ever closer to the Grim Reaper, which I now undeniably am despite much head-in-the-sand stuff, there seems such a bitter-sweetness to their unbridled joy. It seems like yesterday that I was in sixth form, one of the best and most formative times of my life, for sure. Yet here I am 36 years down the line feeling that I want to be at the party too. Not literally, of course (I'd be chucked out!), but the one where I'm 18 too. It's so hard when they're taking the piss about me being interested in their lives and their gossip and all their friends. They just think I'm a weirdo. And yes, I am of course living vicariously. But how can you not when you were 18 once upon a time and now have three children to rub your nose in that small but significant fact?

It's impossible for children to ever imagine their parents the same age as them. But you know what, kids? We were once. We genuinely were. And the worst bit of getting old is that in your head you probably still are. The flesh may wither but the spirit never dies. So when they get embarrassed at your dancing and tell you to get out of the room cos you're 'ruining the vibe' that really hurts. They don't know that and they can't understand it yet. One day they will. Just like I know that my mother's 80 year old body is letting her down, but she still likes to dance. It will be a sad old day when that urge has finally left us, but I think even the oldest of the old still like to dance...and if you've lost the urge to dance, then you've probably lost the will to live. The music may change but the rhythm's in us all. It's as old as the hills, as old as time.

Talking of which, it's probably time to turn the music off now and go to bed. At least I won't have a hangover tomorrow morning, but I'll enjoy hearing the stories and I'll still be wishing I was 18 again. Will I ever get used to the fact that there's no turning back the clock? I doubt it.

Monday, 12 June 2017

General Election 2017

I am no politician but I do have eyes and ears and (currently) a functioning brain which compels me to write down my observations, for my own benefit if no-one else's:-

The Conservatives are now in deeper chaos than they ever were (and certainly as deep as Labour has been too); and with the naive aim to take us into 'hard Brexit' negotiations with the country more fully behind her by calling a General Election, our Prime Minister has thumped a massive own goal into the back of the net.

Meanwhile middle-class 'Remain' voters turned out in their droves to vote Labour thankful that they had been gifted this golden opportunity to undermine the government's Hard Brexit strategy, as did the Youth vote which had been slow to get out of its bed for the Referendum not believing that the EU they had grown up in could be taken away from them so easily. Equally, traditional blue-collar Labour voters who had voted Leave in the Referendum and had perhaps shifted votes over to UKIP prior to the Referendum result, were delighted to feel they could go back to putting a cross in the Red column given that the Leader of the party was a hard-line supporter of the Unions back in the 1970s and advocates re-nationalisation of many of our public services. one fell swoop, this is what's happened:-
- the democratic result of the EU Referendum has been undermined
- our Government doesn't know what's up or down
- we are the laughing stock of Europe
- with the rise of Corbyn, UKIP is a dead-in-the-water party (which is bringing Farage crawling back out from under his American stone)
- and, most ironic of all, the two extremes of Labour voters both voted Labour for opposing reasons: the one to uphold all that is British and to return to a Britain where Britons are in control; the other to try and undermine the very decision their fellow Labour supporters from, dare I say, somewhat less privileged backgrounds, had voted for barely a year ago.

Quite where we go from here is anyone's guess. 

Thursday, 25 May 2017

A Minute's Reflection on a Virgin Train

11am, Thursday 25th May, 2017

We have just had a minute’s silence on the Virgin train down to London for the victims of the Manchester bombing. I focused my mind not just on the pain of the senseless losses that innocent people have endured - none more than the loss of a child - but on the belief that the Good in the world will overcome the Evil. If collectively we all hold this as our intent in our mind’s eye we might yet achieve what currently seems impossible. While we appear to be sliding into the second era of The Dark Ages, history informs us that Enlightenment follows at some point. We usually have to reach rock bottom to be able to climb back out from the dark depths towards the light. If humanity collectively has this as its goal, its belief, then perhaps it will be achievable. It may not be in our lifetimes, but it will be in someone’s. It is currently humanity’s greatest challenge but we must believe it is possible. 

This will not be achieved by fragmentation. As a society we have become so focused on the Individual, or at best in the small world around us. While I fervently believe that charity begins at home and that self-love is the start of all growth and generosity, the bigger picture must never be lost. Individual communities and countries must be allowed to sort out what works for them, but all of us must have an Overview of the world, a planet spinning in infinite, unfathomable Space that we all inhabit and which we should all love and nurture, as small parts in the collective whole. This does not necessarily mean economic globalisation and that 'bigger is better'. Small is best, but small needs to be a part of that greater whole - a functioning, effective, perfectly fitting piece in the world jigsaw. Forcing the wrong shape into the available hole is never going to give a harmonious picture - there will be lumps and bumps and the jigsaw will look awkward. This is where we’re at right now. We need to take a long hard look at the pieces that don’t fit properly and start moving them around till they find their rightful place. 

Freedom is at the core of civilisation but so are basic laws of Love and Peace. War never provides answers, only more problems. Love Thy Neighbour has never been more important. It is only with faith in man’s essential goodness that this battle will be won.

Tuesday, 23 May 2017

The Call of the Coast

One of the few down sides of living in the UK's oldest National Park is its distance from our island's  coastline. I grew up in Sussex, born a skimming stone's throw from the English Channel. While one could never boast this as the UK's most beautiful coastline, it nevertheless has its charms: groyns, run-down Victorian and Edwardian piers with tacky amusements, sugary pink tooth-rotting Brighton rock, seaweed and tar-stained pebbles. I hear you gasping with envy! - yet the faded grandeur of the seafront villas, the intimacy of the cobbled Lanes of Brighton, the exoticism of Brighton Pavilion, the briny air of Rottingdean with its rock pools and crabs, the imposing chalk white cliffs linking England with France (a common land sliced and separated some millennia ago) seeps into your soul and stays firmly lodged till the day you die. We all have somewhere we call 'Home' and for me it has to be Sussex. I have travelled and lived far and wide but as I walked a few weeks back by the banks of the river at Cuckmere Haven towards the blue of the English Channel, I have never felt more connected with the land of my birth.

Wednesday, 1 March 2017

Fruits of the Forage - A Culinary Wander Through Our Woods And Gardens

I was excited when I first read the Taster Menu on the ‘Fruits of the Forage’ Facebook page for the February Wild Food Club meal. Our experience the other Monday night at the Poacher’s Inn in Bollington, East Cheshire, did not disappoint. In fact it confirmed categorically that the humblest of ingredients, in skilful and imaginative hands, can be elevated into something truly exquisite. 

This is how it read:—

Wild Garlic & Three Cornered Leek Soup, pickled wild garlic buds and wild seed foccacia.
Braised Pheasant & Morels
(V/Braised Cauliflower & Morels)
with spiced yoghurt, chickweed pakora and wild garlic naan
Hogweed Marinated Beetroot, pickled damsons, blue cheese, pear, dandelion leaves
Roasted Duck Breast
(V/Scorched Purple Sprouting Broccoli)
Kale, pickled cherries, crab apple and red cabbage, duck fat fondant potatoes
Northern Lemon Sorbet, frozen apple, wild stone liquor
Apple Pear Pastries, damson ice cream, damson gin sauce
Wild Sweets & Winter Warmer

I was fascinated to see how this was going to translate into reality. Too often you go to a restaurant and get excited by what’s on offer only to find the food on your plate turns out to be rather humdrum. By contrast, the food that arrived that Monday night at the Fruits of the Forest ‘pop-up’ restaurant was inspired. The flavour combinations were sublime, the execution faultless and each dish beautifully presented without being too fussy - such as the white china cup that cradled green soup bursting with leafy, garlicky flavour or the clear glass jar containing the zingy Northern Lemon Sorbet. 

Every course held a sensory surprise but one of my favourites was the hand-made chocolate truffles (‘Wild Sweets’) with a tiny berry in the middle of it which injected an orangey zesty burst of flavour into the mouth to contrast with the rich dark chocolate as you bit into it. 

I can honestly say that I enjoyed this tasting menu more than any restaurant food I’ve had in years. It was fresh, honest and superbly executed. What’s more, Fred was a charming and charismatic host, welcoming his guests as they arrived and introducing each course with an explanation of the ingredients, handing round tufts of hogweed or seeds of dock as he did. His chef, Ben, also spoke briefly at the beginning and end of the meal and both men were ably assisted by other Fruits of the Forage family members all working together as an impressive team. 

Fruits of the Forage began just a few years ago with an idea and a few pots of chutneys and jams from hedgerow finds. These humble beginnings then progressed to local market stalls but the quality of their product has now led to Good Taste awards and an investment in a dedicated premises with catering kitchen.

In these days of shortages of fresh produce from Spain and elsewhere, there seems no better time to be drawing on the natural ingredients which we can find down our own garden path. 

Fruits of the Forage host twice monthly Wild Food Clubs. For more information visit their Facebook Page and click on Events. 

Monday, 10 October 2016

Summer 2016 - End of an Era

For the first time in 10 years of travelling to France for our summer holiday, we were not the normal band of five. No, this year we'd lost a girl and gained a boy. G was in Greece with a friend from school whooping it up post GCSE endeavours, so we filled the space in the car with E's boyfriend. It was fun to mix things up but I couldn't help feeling how it was the end of an era.

When we bought our house in the woods in south-west France back in May 2005, I knew that we would have 10 good years, all being well, of family holidays and shared memories. It was to be a place in which the girls would grow up, becoming familiar with the languid habits of a holiday in Les Landes: setting up routines, becoming comfortable with French customs, culture and language and making life-long connections with people and place. It may lack the glamour and adventure of family holidays in far-flung exciting places, but we hoped it would be a solid grounding which, the older they became, the more they would appreciate. There is something deeply reassuring for the human soul to return to the familiar. We always hoped it would become a 'home from home' and I think we have achieved that. They have the rest of their lives to globe-trot, after all.

Next year E has declared that she may only spend a couple of weeks with us and G, no doubt, will have her own plans too. People will come and go, especially with E hopefully passing her driving test soon and therefore able to get to and from airports and home without the need for complicated logistics involving ever-patient friends. The treasured five weeks of time together in a French home rather than an English one have certainly finally come to an end. I feel rather sad, but have to look beyond that selfishness and perhaps take some comfort in the fact that hopefully N and I will come to spend more time there across numerous seasons and that the girls will always want to return.

Like a dying tree which has a last flush of flower or fruit before giving up the ghost, the sun actually decided to shine in south-west France this August and we had the best weather we've had there for many years now. We woke almost every day of the four weeks (not five this year, due to the need to return for GCSE results) to blue skies rather than grey - something our sun-starved bodies and souls were yearning for. The sun was very hot, the air quite cool and the sea positively cold - quite bizarre conditions really which must have been something to do with gulf streams or jet streams but we never got round to finding an explanation. While evenings were not balmy, the days felt like true summer - but not so hot they were impossible.

We had the usual string of visitors - friends and family - including celebrating my mother's 80 years of life with my brother and mother-in-law and G's 16th. It was all very convivial with memories to treasure. The house has provided many such special moments over the last decade, for which we will always be grateful.

There was inevitably a lot of hurtling up and down the autoroute to airports - Biarritz and Bordeaux - collecting and returning everyone but we always managed to make something of it by having a special meal, a bit of shopping, or simply a change of scene.

N continued his long-established routine of doing a bit of work every day - something which still frustrates me as he never quite 'switches off' - and we jointly dealt with issues that needed sorting around the maintenance of the house and garden (specifically the problem of how to keep the wild boar out!).

For all these reasons it is never quite a holiday, but a change is as good as a rest. To be able to dip into a cool pool, feel hot sand between my toes, be tossed around by powerful Atlantic waves, read a book from time to time and have the odd sneaky snooze in the sun is a blessing and a privilege for which I am eternally grateful.

Silly selfie on the ferry...

The sun setting on Portsmouth...

G comes back to the fold from Greece with friend in tow...

The bay of Archachon...


The first week gang...

The first week gang gets bigger...

Late lunches at the beach...

Mother and Brother cooling their heels...

Just driftin'...

The Birthday Surprise for G - her best friend arrives!...


More driftin'...

Luminous Landaise light...

Sweet 16!...

Celebrating in Biarritz...

Mine's a pina colada...

So many sunsets...

Sun, sea and sand...

Having a laugh after Dax races...

Surf's up...

Wave watching...

Final sunset...

Tuesday, 21 June 2016

EU Referendum - A Wider Vision

I grew up looking across the English Channel. I grew up wanting to live and work in France. I grew up learning French so I could go across the English Channel and live and work in France. When I was grown up I went to live and work in France. That was before 1993 and the formation of the European Union (until then it had been the less binding EEC), which means it was less easy for a Brit to live and work 'abroad', but it was still possible. It required some focus and dedication, but that's not such a bad thing, is it? It certainly makes you question yourself closely as to your wants and desires which, you could say, is also a good thing. In the early 1990s I went to live in Italy. This was still pre the European Union, but it was still possible to live and work there. Europe was not a closed door.

All the talk about leaving the EU being a big, scary unknown black hole perplexes me. We've lived without being part of the EU a lot longer than we've lived as part of it. Back in 1993, I sat at a dinner and, greatly daring, suggested to my learned neighbour (who's now an eminent QC) that there was more than a little irony in the fact that just as we were witnessing the very bloody break up of Yugoslavia (The Yugoslav Wars), back into its original, component countries, here we were trying to mulch a whole load of historically, culturally and linguistically independent countries into an amorphous blob called the European Union. Had we not just seen that such actions end up - whether many decades down the line or not - with a mass revolt against the political and economic ambitions of the (relatively) few? At the same time (1990-91) we were witnessing the dissolution of the USSR which, crucially, signalled the end of the Cold War. It seemed a little odd that our European political leaders were thinking that scrunching together a group of disparate countries and cultures just because they shared the same bit of Planet Earth (i.e. the Continent of Europe) was a good idea. Had they just sleep-walked through the previous few years of bloody upheaval?

I am fed up with the emphasis - on both sides of the debate - on politics and economics. Why is this not about people? The Human Factor? When will politicians learn that people - especially the British it seems - do not want to be herded and dictated to? Good, effective leadership is about suggestion and example. The European Union, in its current form, is arguably the perfect hiding place for power junkies and bullies and for otherwise no-hope politicians (I'll refrain from naming names): a big unwieldy machine where people get lost and gobbled up in the cogs and wheels and pipes and where gremlins can lurk undetected.

Globalisation - another of the key arguments in the Remain camp - needs careful scrutiny too. It is a very complex subject and has spatial, economic and social connotations. Yes, the world is better linked than ever before thanks to the massive advances in transport and technology over the last century. In that sense humanity is becoming more 'global'. Everyone can travel and communicate across the planet. Trade is easier. Migration is at an all time high. Things that could never be conceived of are now possible. People's eyes are open to all the possibilities out in the big wide world. No-one is confined these days to their village or their town or their country. People's horizons can be truly broad. But does this always breed happiness? Is it not a bit like the baby who's placed in the middle of the room because the parents misguidedly think they will like crawling around and touching everything when in reality they feel insecure and vulnerable and are much happier in the confines of a playpen with a few chosen favourite toys and in sight of their parent? It's great to globe-trot, but more often than not it's even greater to 'come home'. We all need roots. We all need stability. It's a basic human need. Too much choice creates stress and confusion. Carefully selected choice is certainly an excellent thing - but can the same be said of limitless choice? And anyway, even if you don't take this view, I don't believe that globalisation is only achievable if we stay in the EU. Arguably, a world without a European superstate, would actually widen horizons still further and encourage ambitious people and adventurers to take their skills further afield, beyond the comfort of the Eurozone.

If I sound dangerously like a 'Little Englander', this in fact could not be further from the truth. I have never felt particularly 'English' (whatever that is) and am chameleon enough to embrace living in different cultures. However, it is this very experience which also teaches you how similar, yet how different, humanity can be, even within the confines of the Eurozone. I've had the most amazing times living in France, Italy and Spain - particularly living in northern Italy for four years and where my first child was born. It was a wonderful life and we made wonderful friends - Italian and multi-national - almost all of whom we are still in touch with thanks to modern mediums such as Facebook. Nevertheless, while on the one hand we never wanted to return to England, on the other hand we were very conscious that, however integrated we were, however well we spoke the language, we would never actually be Italian. We would ultimately still always be relative strangers in a relatively foreign land.

True, if globalisation and migration continues exponentially, then ultimately we should all feel 'at home' wherever we are in the world. Yet I feel this is a very, very long term ideal. It may certainly eventually happen, but I sense that The People will decide this rather than the politicians - which is what true democracy is all about. Maybe now is not quite the time; or rather, the way in which it is being presented to us is currently not palatable to all. The idea needs time to mature in people's minds and bit by bit the whole integration thing will perhaps take a more natural course. Agreed, that if we leave the EU right now, there may be a delay. Possibly a long delay. But taking stock is not such a stupid thing to do. Assess, analyse and do not be afraid. One step back may ultimately be two steps forward.

Diversification is usually what guarantees longevity (as Darwin's Origin of Species and Natural Selection prove); but such things take millennia of development and adaptation to occur. My concerns are that politicians are rushing the fusion and that there are many who just want to see it as a 'Success Story' in their own political and human lifetime which, in the vast sweep of history, is frankly absurd. If we come out of Europe now - and if others follow - this is not to say that there is no future for a united Europe. Instead it should be seen as a learning curve. The best things in life take time to mature. Why are we in such a headlong rush? Our Prime Minister went to Europe with suggestions of how things could be adjusted and he was stone-walled. Is this the right attitude for positive development of the European Union? I read it more as certain countries/politicians seeing it as a threat to their political careers as well as to their political legacy. And let us also be aware of the language: a united Europe could be a very different thing from a European Union. If we are 'united', we are usually in accord: in a 'union' there can often still be discord.

The Remain campaign has largely focused on economic disaster as their reason to stay; similarly, the Brexit campaign has been associated almost entirely with concerns over immigration quotas. Yet there will be many of us who feel neither of those things. Intelligent people will listen to both sides but ultimately draw their own conclusions from their own observations and convictions. There will undoubtedly be many who vote to leave simply because they feel the political, social and economic model isn't quite right. They will not all be fascist xenophobes causing the UK to become a marginal bit-part in the epic EU drama. Equally, there will be many who vote to stay who feel passionately that the European Union, in whatever form, is the way forward and fear that an exit vote means we will be out in the cold for ever more. While younger voters have never known a Great Britain outside the EU, older voters have. Agreed, we will not be returning to the world as it was then (which would be wholly retrogressive), but at the same time, should we feel unduly scared by the idea of being independent again? As with most things in life, you win some and you lose some: there will be losses but there will be gains. The main gain, in my view, is that we would return to being a proper democracy rather than a member of a superstate where only the most powerful seem able to have a defining voice. Perhaps the disillusionment with our politicians is associated with the fact that none of them seem to have the power any more to affect significant change.

One of the things that is being claimed by the Remain campaign, aside from economics, is that we are safer by being part of the EU. Indeed, the initial six countries that signed the Treaty of Paris in 1951, did so as a reaction to World Wars 1 and 2, in an attempt to ensure that no such horrors should take place again and in the belief that we are stronger together than apart. While this is a truism, there is also an irony in the fact that the larger the European Union becomes, the more of a threat it potentially becomes to world peace. We saw the domination of the USSR last century and it was only when it broke up that the Cold War ended: now it is the European Union that is rapidly becoming this huge geo-political entity which is flexing its muscles every time its peace and ideologies are threatened. The suggestion of a European Army alarms me more than comforts me. As western democratic ideologies gain geo-political weight, so the eastern ideologies see them as more of a threat and the territorial and ethical mistakes of World War 1 and 2 (such as the Sykes-Picot agreement), let alone those of the British Empire, come back to haunt us. Terrorism in Europe is growing exponentially: is there not a link here? Moreover, the United States wants us to remain in the European Union as it sees the EU as a buffer between it and Russia. I do not feel safer for having the USA on our 'side' - in fact I see such a stance as simply provoking the age old problem of superpowers vying for world domination in some sort of real-life Bond movie.

Indeed, the EU is arguably becoming less democratic by the day. The Individual seems to be increasingly obliterated by The Group. We have handed over the keys and our right to drive the car. People in their own countries no longer have the full weight of their vote. There are thousands of laws and regulations which they no longer have knowledge of, let alone control of. Some might argue that this is the future. This is what globalisation is all about. This may well be true, but the one factor that is being consistently ignored is The Human Factor. What makes us human is our right to choose, our right to be cognitive human beings not stupid herd animals. This is the factor that is being overlooked, and overlooked at Europe's peril (and, indeed, at the world's peril). If the UK votes to leave, perhaps this will encourage all the countries involved to take a step back and get a better overview; to analyse what works and what doesn't and not be so arrogant as to ignore those areas that are not ideal. The problem we have created is that the ability to have more lucid independent vision has been obfuscated by The European Machine. Elements of George Orwell's prescient novel '1984' are arguably happening in 2016 instead. That's quite a disturbing thought.

So what is the answer? In truth I'm not sure I know. I do believe, though, that sometimes you have to do the hard thing to end up in a better place. That may mean voting Out on June 23rd which will undoubtedly set the cat among the pigeons in the EU; but if that leads ultimately to an intelligent re-assessment of the European Union - what truly works and what truly doesn't, and how a more effective model may pave the way in some far distant future to greater union across the entire world map rather than just in Europe - then perhaps that's a dice worth rolling.

The 'Out' vote, contrary to public perception, could ultimately claim a wider vision than the 'In' vote. Now that would be a turn up for the books.

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