Wednesday, 24 January 2018

Travel Diaries... Watch this space.

Hey all, if you're wondering why I took down some of the travel blogs that were up here it's because I'm collating my travel diaries and editing them. Also because what with keeping a diary I didn't have time to do the blogposts justice. I went through Seven countries - Belgium, Germany, Austria, Hungary, Italy, Monaco and France in 30 days in the autumn so it was quite full-on travelling. 

I recommend keeping a diary with an old-fashioned pen and notebook to anyone. Not only does it keep you much saner than social media (you can tell it anything, without repercussions) you get to relive your journey later, including the bits you forgot. Writing in a notebook gives you permission to be anywhere, as people aren't sure if you're a researcher, a journalist, a writer, an escaped lunatic, an eccentric millionaire who might tip loads, or a health and safety inspector. If you're lucky they may assume you're a restaurant reviewer and give you a free glass of wine. It allows you to avoid eye-contact with jerks, members of your own nationality that you're keen to avoid, and over-zealous ticket-inspectors. Most importantly, it justifies your purchase of over-priced Italian notebooks as an absolutely indispensable work expense.

I also recommend travelling by train in Europe. It is vastly more interesting, cheaper, less stressful, and in every way, better than travelling by plane.

I am hoping to do a crowdfunder to publish the diaries at some point, as a small run of print books, so when I've sorted out how and when, and with whom, I will post the details up here. 

In the meantime here is a picture of St Ursula, my namesake saint and patron of Cologne. As a kid I wondered who St Ursula was, and my mother, who went to a Catholic school, mumbled something about her being martyred rather than marry a Pagan, and I concluded it was some sort of tedious Catholic anti-sex tale. But she turned out to be much much cooler than that. Anyway, she's got a pen to write stuff down , as well as an arrow to stab people with, which seemed to me an excellent combination.

Sunday, 23 April 2017

This week I will be Eating Mostly... Interwar Cookery


A little round-up, and general thoughts about what turned out to be a fortnight of cooking: I used three cookbooks for this project and I was expecting to use Complete Illustrated Cookery most as I'd used it previously. In the end I used it least as many of the recipes in it are for larger households (6-8 people). However it did contribute several good recipes including the vegeburgers. I used the Odhams book, which turned out to be written by a Lydia Chatterton (credit where it's due!) a lot more than expected. I generally found its instructions excellent although there were one or two misfires, like the dodgy quantities for the lemon cake. (Odhams Press books are mid-century gems of popular knowledge and although they look unspectacular on the outside are often filled with fascinating stuff, so if you spot one in a charity shop, do investigate.) I hadn't cooked from the Bestway cookbook before and I found it generally good but a bit vague about cooking times and temperatures.

Both the Odhams and the Complete Illustrated Cookery book were great because of the sheer volume of recipes inside, which meant that instead of choosing a recipe and buying ingredients, in most cases I was able to look at what ingredients I had and find recipes to suit. I did get in some ingredients I wouldn't normally use, mostly tinned things: pineapple, lobster, peas, as well as dried fruit and nuts. One thing both cookbooks were good on was how to re-use things so that they weren't wasted, but also aren't the same as the previous meal. I feel like this has been good for my food re-use skills. As well as putting less into the bin than usual, I was surprised to put less into the compost.

One thing I realised was that some English vegetables are massively under-rated and have unjustly acquired a bad name for various reasons. Celery, for example. I associate celery with those unpleasant, dried up sticks you get to dip into hummus. Joyless, stringy, chewy, and part of a low-calorie diet. In fact, celery is useful for all sorts of things, cooked or raw, and delicious. Ditto turnips, which are tasty and crunchy. I also realised it's ok to use glace cherries as an ingredient. I've always loved glace cherries but as a kid used to be told off for eating them from the pot as they were reserved for cake decorating purposes. In fact, there's a few things I've been put off eating by my parents insistence that they had to be eaten unadorned and unenjoyably, for some sort of moral reason.

Anyway, compared to the Edwardian cookbook I cooked from, I felt like this food was quite pleasure-oriented, more frivolous and adventurous. It was much lighter and fresher, and had a wider range of ingredients. But it wasn't just the wider range of things that made it different, it was also an attitude, a sort of embracing of experimentation that was about those decades. Speaking of experimentation, I haven't yet worked my way through the cocktail section of either of these books, a shocking omission on my part.

One thing I wanted to add a note about was breakfast. I didn't make a point of using the cookbooks for breakfast, but I usually have porridge or toast or else leftovers, so I pretty much stayed within the general spirit of the thing. I did think, looking at the breakfast menus in the cookbooks, that we have got really conservative about what constitutes a breakfast dish, as the variety suggested is much wider than what we would expect these days. In a wider sense, it was quite apparent that not only have we added things to our diet since that era, we've dropped a lot as well, and not all of them were unpleasant. I wanted to cook sorrel soup, but no idea where to get the ingredients for that.

As previously noted, one of the reasons I kept going after the planned ten-day mark was how disgustingly healthy I felt. I definitely lost a pound or two of weight, despite making 1 cake, 1 pie, 1 batch each of shortbread, scones, sausage rolls and biscuits, 1 chocolate pudding, and a large sugary fruit salad - a selection not likely to show up in many diet books. I am a bit baffled by this, but wonder if the fact I ate more protein and veg and less carbs than usual may have been behind it. Or it may have been that I expended more calories cooking and shopping, or that eating home-cooked goodies instead of bought ones made me in general feel less hungry, so I ate fewer snacks between meals. Or a combination of all three. Incidentally, as I was curious about this, I looked up the 'official' advice about what you're supposed to eat for a healthy diet. I have never seen a more jumbled and confusing set of instructions, ever.

Anyway, overall I found this little cooking odyssey a positive experience, with highlights including the haddock and lobster pie, the celery soup, the lardy chips, and the winter fruit salad. Even the vegeburgers, to my surprise. Low point was definitely the stinky kidneys, although I do have a hankering to try steak and kidney pudding, now. One of the reasons I decided to give this a go was because I learned so many new cooking skills doing the Edwardian week, and this has definitely been good both for that, and also for breaking a few bad habits! I am aware now that if I carry on in chronological order and do another one of these, the next era I land up on is WW2 cooking, which is a bit daunting and scary. I might have to gird my loins for a fight, before that.

Last Day!

Yesterday was my last day of 1930s cooking. I'm looking forward to a couple of days without cooking and/or mounds of washing up! That said, I carried on for several days longer than I originally intended to, partly because I was enjoying it, and partly because I felt much healthier than usual - less tired/hungry and more energy. I will try and post a little roundup tomorrow. Thanks for reading!

Saturday was another farmers market trip, this time to Axbridge in Somerset. I was happy to see the season for Cheddar strawberries had started. I bought a free-range chicken, as well as salad stuff, scones, and half doz duck eggs for a quid - bargain! It's a substantial bike ride so I wanted something to cook that evening that would use the freshly bought produce, and wasn't too complicated. I also fancied something more summery to eat.

When I got home I had a scone with homemade jam and cream, and a strawberry on top. The jam, although made before this particular cooking binge, is from one of these books so I thought I'd post the recipe here. You can't beat homemade strawberry jam. Ironically, it occurred to me that although we all obsess about 'old-fashioned' afternoon teas, absolutely none of the suggested menus in any of these books include afternoon tea, just breakfast lunch and dinner.

Anyway I decided to roast the chicken and have it with some potatoes and salad. I wasn't sure what to do with the potatoes but spotted this recipe for 'potato straws' or frites, as you probably know them. I was surprised as I associate old-fashioned British cooking with old-fashioned British chips. I never normally deep-fry anything, so was nervous about the pan of hot lard, convinced that I was going to set either myself or the kitchen on fire. Consequently, they took much longer to cook than I think they should have done, as I kept turning the heat down instead of up, and the chips didn't come out a nice brown colour. I was also squeamish about dropping most of a block of lard into a pan and melting it.

I also made these two salads, including the dressing. I didn't have tarragon vinegar so used balsamic, which tasted fine but made it brown. Quite a few recipes in these books include tarragon vinegar: I think I am going to make/get some. I was pretty cynical about the orange recipe while I was making it, as it just seemed to turn into an orange skin full of dressing, but I thought it would look nice on the plate. There are lots of recipes involving stuffing things in all these books, it must have been fashionable at the time.

Despite my reservations this was a great meal. The chips looked pale and interesting but tasted amazing. There was no taste of oil like you get in chip-shop chips, they tasted light and crisp and potato-ey. The fat ran off quickly and was absorbed by the paper, so they didn't seem fatty or greasy. (I've got through loads of greaseproof paper in the last fortnight - never previously realised just how useful it was) They were a hassle to cook but so delicious I think I would make chips like this again. Yup, when it comes to chips I am converted to the way of the lard. (Is lard actually bad for you, anyway?)

The chips went really well with the chicken (roast chicken is always good) and salad. The orange was actually a great combo with the chicken, the vinegary/citrusy dressing inside counteracted any oiliness that might have come from the rest of the meal. The salad was fresh and light; the cream dressing, despite its funny colour, was like a lighter sort of mayonnaise, and tasted good on the chicken and chips as well. I enjoyed this meal: I imagined it might turn up in some new and slightly art-deco seaside hotel, and be seen as fresh and continental and sophisticated in 1934, only to still be on the menu 30 years later, except without all the freshness and homemadeness that made it nice, and be sad and tired.

One of the interesting things about cooking from these books is you can see two strains of cooking going on: one is the inherited kind, the stews and suet puddings and so on, the other a newer, friskier, more inventive kind, that likes colours and unexpected flavours. I really like this as a style, and a set of ingredients: it's more diverse than the ingredients and styles in the Edwardian cookbook I cooked from last year, but not yet affected by the over-finickyness and chemical horrors that invaded post-war food.

For pudding I had rhubarb jelly I'd prepared the night before. This was basically stewed rhubarb with added gelatine. I think there's a difference between the gelatine sachets I had and the kind in the recipe, because it set so flippin' hard in the mould that I could only get it out by excavating it in lumps, with a spoon. It didn't look pretty at all. That said, it tasted alright - like solid, stewed rhubard. I ate it with cream. If I'd had to serve it to guests, I'd have been embarrassed.

Speaking of embarrassments, the shepherds pie made with the kidneys was actually nice and smelt hardly at all, so I don't know quite what went on there. I ate it for Thursday dinner/friday lunch, without any ill effects whatsoever.

Also on Friday, I wanted something fairly easy for dinner, so I made cheese and leeks, which is basically like cauliflower cheese except with leeks. It was fine, but not as good as the cauliflower version.

Day Ten/Eleven

Wednesday I'd promised to take cake into the office, so was going to have another go at treacle scones, but instead spotted this recipe for walnut gingerbread and decided to try that. It was an unusual combination of ingredients, and rose dead flat, rather than in the middle like a cake. I had the first piece hot with cream and it was awesome. Very popular in the office. Easy to make, portable, tasty: will make this again.

For dinner I'd planned this recipe with lamb kidneys, which I bought in the farmers market for a quid. Organic, too. However, when I got them out of the packet the smell of sheep piss hit like getting out of a landrover in a farmyard. As they started cooking the reek was something else. I felt queasy and left them to cook with the back door open and the door to the rest of the house closed. They looked disgusting too, and after having tossed them in seasoned flour as per the recipe, resembled something out of a zombie horror movie.

I'd also planned this chocolate pudding, which needed to go in the oven, but was scared to put it in with the kidneys in case the smell infected it.

I made mashed potatoes as well, partly to reassure myself that if the kidneys were inedible, I'd have something to eat. I checked the kidneys, and have to admit the appearance did improve as it cooked. However, when I stirred it there was still this terrible stench, so I googled 'kidneys smelly when cooking,' which at least reassured me that it was probably not an indicator of imminent ecoli. Nothing if not nervous, I sat down with my dinner.

I can honestly say this is one of the oddest eating experiences I've had in long time. When I sniffed the stew, it still smelt horrid, and made me feel a bit ill. When I actually ate it, it tasted nice: the kidneys had a good texture, sort of sweet and chewy; the sauce was mushroomy and thick. Afterwards, though, the unpleasant smell seemed to hang around in my mouth for ages, like a faint coating of sheepiness in the back of my throat. I thought I might be sick, but was fine, except that next morning, in between eating other things, the faint scent of sheep-piss would invade my tastebuds, like the ghost of some past atrocity.

Apart from this, it did seem like a pie filling in search of a pie. I am minded to exonerate the recipe, which wasn't difficult and turned out exactly like the picture. I wasn't ill, so don't think the meat was off, but I am a suspicious of the kidneys, and wonder if maybe a small organic producer doesn't know how to clean or prepare them properly. Or else they just expect people to feed them to their dogs.

Anyway because I am a masochist, and hate wasting things, and needed a night off cooking, I made the leftover kidney stew and mash into a sort of shepherds pie to eat tonight. Look, if my ancestors survived the industrial revolution I can survive two nights of stinkney stew.

The chocolate pudding was more successful, thankfully. I was expecting a cold pudding that'd come out like a mould, but it actually was more like a chocolate custard, with a little top layer of meringue on top. It was perfectly pleasant, if nothing special to look at, nicely chocolatey, and would have gone well with something like a chopped banana. Quite nice, but not convinced it was worth it on the faff to result ratio.

Today I nipped to the supermarket. I've been running out of 'staple' things all week: eggs, flour, milk, sugar, potatoes and veg. Despite the queasy kidney stew, I really do feel healthy after ten days of this, and also, to my surprise, think I may have lost a pound or two in weight. I can't work out why. It is possible I simply worked it off standing in front of the sink scrubbing at endless heaps of washing up, swearing fulsomely, but I've also noticed I've eaten less carbs like bread and pasta, and more protein and vegetables, than normal. I find it hard to believe my sugar consumption has dropped.

Anyway, partly as a result of feeling disgustingly healthy, and not having got through all the recipes I wanted to try, and also not wanting to go out on a low point, I've decided to carry on until Saturday, which'll make it a round fortnight.

Day Nine Update

Back at work today. Last week I spotted a recipe for what is basically a 1930s vegeburger, so flippantly offered/threatened to cook it for my colleague, who is vegan. She seemed unexpectedly keen, so that's what we both had for lunch today. (I live near enough the office to come home for lunch - I know, it's actually like the 1930s or something). I didn't exactly follow the recipe but tweaked it a bit. I had no peas, and substituted purple sprouting for cauliflower. To start with, I cubed vegetables and cooked them with a stock cube, then added cornflour and a teaspoon of olive oil, and let the mixture cook down with the lid off.

I cooked the veg in the morning, intending to strain off excess liquid later, but when I came back at lunchtime, what liquid there was had formed into a sort of paste around the vegetables. I smushed them up a bit with a potato masher, then tried to form the veg into a burger shape by using a cake cutter. It was no use at all, so I had to use my hands instead. It was pretty sticky - I've been noticing all week, how much sticky, visceral, tactile contact I've been having with the food I'm making - then dropped the burger shapes into a pile of breadcrumbs and grated more on top. (Tip: if you have stale bread, bung it in the freezer, it is easy to grate into breadcrumbs) Finally, I cooked them in olive oil, not deep fried but maybe a bit more oil than usual for a shallow fry, on quite a decent heat.

While I was cooking the second one, I bunged the first in the oven to keep warm as per the instructions. Another thing I've been noticing, using these recipes, is how often it says 'cook, and set aside' or 'keep warm' or 'reheat such-and-such'. Did they not know about food-poisoning, and how it develops, I wonder? Or are we just paranoid these days? I don't recall the 1930s being associated with mass outbreaks of salmonella.

Anyway I was really surprised at how good the vegeburger, sorry cutlet, turned out to be. We had it in white rolls with lettuce and chutney and it was excellent. I was worried the breadcrumbs would burn but actually they just got nicely crunchy. Vegan colleague was favourably impressed. A very pleasant healthy lunch, far better than a tasteless, soy-based burger. Also, a good way to use up leftover vegetables. Only word of warning: I wouldn't try and grill these, they don't hold together well until the frying starts to get going, and would definately not keep their shape.

Day Eight Update

Monday was a bank holiday (sorry, US readers) and also a friend's birthday do, so I offered to cook some things for it. The birthday was originally supposed to be in the garden, but a torrential thunderstorm caused a last minute relocation to the pub. Fortunately the pub in question doesn't do food so didn't mind us sitting there munching.

I decided to use the rest of the puff pastry making sausage rolls, and if I had enough, vol-au-vents, as well as Macedoine Salad and a Lemon Layer Cake. I used pork sausages and baked them for about 20-25 minutes. Each full-sized sausage chopped up nicely into 3 party-sized sausage rolls. I baked the vol-au-vent cases at the same time. These were not actually difficult: you cut one whole round of pastry, followed by another, a smaller round out of that, then paste the two together with a bit of egg. They came out well though if I had wanted to stuff them more substantially I would have used thicker pastry for the upper layer. I was going to stuff them with chicken but didn't have time, and instead filled them with stilton and thin slices of celery. Both these and the sausage rolls were great and went down pretty quick once they got to the pub.

I also made a Macedoine Salad which is in both cookbooks in slightly different variations. It's basically cold cubed potatoes, turnip and carrot in mayonnaise, plus any other vegetables you have to use up. I added leftover cooked purple sprouting, spring onions, and chopped radishes, and put it all on a bed of lettuce with leftover asparagus on top. The radishes were great, and one thing that one book said about radishes is that you can eat the leaves, which I never heard before. So I washed a few radish leaves, got rid of any grotty ones, and put them in with the lettuce. I thought they were eminently edible, and would do this again instead of chucking them in the compost. I liked this salad, and birthday girl loved it, but some people turned their noses up - whether because they don't like salad, or at it's specific appearance, I don't know. Anyway it was the only thing that half of it came home again.

I also made lemon layer cake. The cake bit of this was totally straightforward. The filling on the other hand gave me a bit of hassle. It's basically lemon curd, and I couldn't get it to set properly. This may have been because I was nervous after the lemon-scrambled-egg incident. It did thicken, but it definitely wasn't as thick as it should be. When I came to 'spread' (ie pour) it on the middle of the cake, a lot just ran down and pooled around the sides, and I had to scoop a load up and back into the bowl. On the plus side, I now have a quantity of (runny) lemon curd to do something else with. The icing instructions said 12oz of icing sugar and I thought that seemed loads, so I used 6oz. The icing was just lemon juice and icing sugar. I usually make butter icing but this was very easy and simple and tasted nice. In the end, the cake was a success, but I felt annoyed with the cookbook: the quantities were clearly way off.

I am not responsible for the goat: my friend keeps goats so that was one of her birthday presents.

Day Six/Seven Update

Yesterday I went to Stroud, which gave me a chance to go to the farmers' market. Although British asparagus hadn't appeared in the supermarket in Bristol, there were stalls selling heaps of it, as well as other vegetable delicacies like British rhubarb and purple sprouting. Also lots of other veg that met the criteria of what you should look for in a vegetable, according to these old books, (break with a snap instead of bending, come with the green tops on and not wilted, not be dry or withered, in case you were wondering). It all looked mouthwatering and enticing in the way that supermarket veg just don't. I think it's a shame that we've lost all the local supply chains that could supply fresh, seasonal produce, and the fact that vegetables look horrible instead of appetising encourages people to eat other, less healthy things, instead.

Speaking of less healthy things, I also went to Walkers Bakery, which is totally old-school, and - do not snigger - bought a cream horn. Partly because I had been reading the recipe for pastry horns in the Odhams cookbook, and it occurred to me I'd never had one. Nor had I ever cooked one. I assumed you needed special implements, but apparently you can make one by wrapping the pastry around a carrot and then removing the carrot afterwards. Don't tell me you don't learn things you'll never need to know, reading this blog. Anyway it was yummy, although I felt a bit filthy eating it in the street.

Over lunch, I told my mum that I was thinking of trying to make puff pastry and asked if she had ever made it. Her response was that she had learned to cook in the early 50s and there wasn't a lot of butter around, which surprised me. It's easy to forget how long rationing went on after the war. I can remember my grandmother, who must've learned to cook in the 20s, making things with lots of butter and lard. Incidentally, I saw yesterday that Unilever are about to sell their margarine brands as people aren't buying margarine so much any more, which is excellent news as far as I'm concerned.

Anyway, I really wanted something nice for saturday dinner and I'd set my heart on this recipe: haddock and lobster pie, which is basically fish pie with a puff pastry lid. I'd never made puff pastry before, although I can make normal pastry. When I read the recipe as text it made no sense, but then I spotted this helpful set of photo instructions. The recipe was 12oz plain flour, 8 oz butter, but I halved that as I didn't want all that wasted if I messed it up. It feels weird rolling out butter with a rolling pin and you have to make it really floury to work. Neither the butter nor the pastry sheets came out in neat squares like in the picture, but I just tried to cover the layers in a way that made sense. It certainly took more time than regular pastry but I found these an excellent set of instructions, and it wasn't actually difficult. The resulting pastry was malleable and easy to handle. I cut the pastry lid and put the rest in the fridge in a piece of greaseproof paper.

To make the fish pie I poached the haddock (a fancy way of saying put it in a pan and covered it in milk to cook) then used the milk to make white sauce. Then I separated the haddock into chunks. Ironically this was way more hassle than the pastry: there were lots of tiny bones I had to pick out with my fingers, which took ages. The recipe basically just stated haddock, tinned lobster, white sauce and puff pastry, but I added a few extra things: parsley, a pinch of cayenne pepper, and a smidgen of cheddar cheese. I then layered the fish and the tinned lobster and the sauce and stuck the pastry on top. It didn't specify a time or heat setting but I put it on gas mark 5.

I was nervous while it was cooking but I have to say the result was bloody amazing. Everything about this was fantastic: the puff pastry was snappy and crispy on top, melting in the middle, and soaked up the sauce at the lower layers. It was quite different from the puff pastry you get on a pre-cooked thing, more like what you'd get on a good strudel or baklava. The haddock and lobster combo was rich and tasty and fishy and peppery. I wasn't sure if a small tin of lobster would hold its own against a large piece of smoked haddock, but it did, and made a much pinker, sweeter taste than a normal fish pie. Despite being disparaging about the tiny tin for £1.10, I would buy this again. Its flavouring capacity outweighed its bulk, and gave the whole thing a definite tinge of luxury. I ate the pie with plain boiled purple sprouting and a glass of white wine and can honestly say it was the best meal I've had in months. As a dish it did somehow have a very 30s feel to it, a sort of hedonistic yet simple luxury, so I imagined eating it on a lovely wooden yacht, drinking champagne while watching the coast go by.

For what it's worth this is an unusual recipe: a quick google on haddock and lobster pie revealed no results whatsoever. I absolutely would make this again: it was 'special occassion' cookery, but very much worth the effort involved, and guaranteed to impress anyone you cooked it for. I was also very pleased with how the pastry turned out. I also attempted a pudding, but it hadn't set in time so I decided to leave it until Sunday to sort that out.

Day Four/Five Update

Tuesday night I made Treacle Scones, from the Bestway book. I fancied this recipe because it struck me as unusual. This was quick and easy up to the point when I had to roll out the dough and realised that the maths involved just didn't work. Three-eighths of an inch is very thin, and given the quantity of dough, was either going to make a massive flat piece of dough, or loads more than 6-8 scones. So I tried one batch at the 3/8 thinness, with about half the dough cut into six. The other half I cut in four, rolled much thicker. There was no specific cooking time or heat, so I bunged them in at gas mark 5.

After a few minutes I opened the oven and whipped out one of the thin scones. It was fantastic: dark, crumbly, soft and treacly and not oversweet. At this point I made a mistake: I wasn't sure if it was done enough and decided to leave the scones another five minutes. When I got them out, the thin ones were definitely overdone, and the thick ones were heading towards it. The thin ones were ok hot, and I ate two with jam and cream dobbed on top, as they were too thin to cut up and were more like sconey biscuits. In the morning, the remaining thin scones were too hard to eat and I had to chuck the other three. The thick ones were OK, but I wish I'd just taken the whole lot out of the oven on the first look. I'd mentioned to work colleagues that I might bring scones in but as they were a bit substandard, I didn't bother. There were complaints about non-provision of scones, so I promised to make another batch next week, when hopefully I will get it right. I have to say these would be perfect for Hallowe'en/Bonfire night, and apart from my overcooking them, were quick to make. Also, they made the kitchen smell great.

Thursday is my end-of-office week, so I wanted to cook something nice. I hadn't planned to follow any of the set menus, but this one kept catching my eye as it was next to the index page in the Odhams Book. It sounded achievable, and involved several things I like, so I decided to give it a go. When I looked up the recipes I realised the index was a bit sketchy: there was no recipe for lemon blancmange listed, and I couldn't find the stuffed potatoes there either, though I did locate them in the section on vegetables. I couldn't find a recipe for lemon blancmange anywhere, so I wasn't sure if they expect you to make it from a packet. I did find a recipe for lemon sauce, and decided on that instead.

Anyway, the stuffed potato is basically a baked, restuffed potato so I put that in to bake first, then set about the celery soup. This was amazingly easy, involving only celery, onion, water, milk, butter and a stock cube. It starts with basically steaming the vegetables in a pan with butter, which is a technique used in the Edwardian cookbook I used last time as well. I don't understand why this isn't in modern cookbooks, unless it's because people are scared of butter. Maybe because it feels counter-intuitive; you keep expecting the contents to burn, which they don't as long as you keep the lid on. They just get all steamed and buttery, which must be a really good way of keeping the nutrients (and taste) in. You then add water, cream it and add milk. I used a handheld food processor, which is great, but I also had a look at the instructions in the cookbook of how to achieve the same result without a processor, which is to sieve it. It looks a horrific amount of hassle, not to mention washing up.

While this was on I stewed a pear and I found ingredients for the lemon sauce. I also decided to clear the dining table, which was covered in the general detritus of the week. At that point I remembered the book contained instructions on how to lay the table, and decided to go for it, because if you're going to cook a nice meal it seems a shame to eat in the middle of mess.

The book did have instructions on laying a place for one. As I was attempting this, I wondered who would go to all this hassle just to lay a single place. I supposed it would be a wife getting dinner for a husband late home, or a son come back from somewhere, and I thought about what a lot of effort it was, and how loved and welcomed you'd feel if somebody did that for you, assuming you weren't the sort of boor who never noticed nice things at all.

One of the effects of doing all this cooking is that you start thinking about food and its significance in the way that you don't, usually. Earlier that evening I'd gone to the supermarket and while in the queue was entertaining myself by working out what you can work out about other shoppers by the contents of their baskets. A great deal, in fact: it's actually a weirdly intimate thing to do in public, like exhibiting your laundry basket. You can pretty much tell whether people are single or coupled (miserably or happily) part of a family, how much disposable income they enjoy, where they sit on a sort of hedonism to hairshirtism continuum, and whether they even use a kitchen, or just a microwave. You can tell whether they take care of themselves and those about them.

Anyway I was pondering this as I was laying the table and thinking about the interminable sieving of celery soup that I wasn't having to do, and how much effort and skill it took to cook from scratch every day (even most days) and all of the hassle of washing up and how no way would I do this every week even though unquestionably I feel healthier and have eaten more healthily than I normally do. And how it really did take one person running the home to keep this up week in week out, and how women (and everyone) got to considering that a crappy deal because its boring and low status. But I go out to work, and that's boring and low status as well, and I wondered if we'd made a terrible mistake, getting rid of the low-status work of doing the caring and effort ourselves, in-house, and whether we shouldn't have just got rid of the low-status instead of getting of getting rid of the work, because in reality it's difficult and high-skill and requires organisation and patience and a variety of technical abilities that nobody bothers with any more. And I thought about how loved you'd feel to come home to a table all laid with flowers and a home-cooked three-course meal and I wondered if when we buy treats from the supermarket it's not really the food we're trying to buy, it's that feeling of being cared for that you get when somebody takes the time and effort to make sure you're fed and warm and welcomed. And of course you don't get it, because everyone knows that buying your loved one a chocolate cake from the supermarket, while not unwelcome, is in no way equivalent to the emotional hit you'd get if they actually made it themselves. But of course mostly people don't have time for that, because time is what people don't have, and I wondered where the time had gone, instead, and how we let it get taken away from us.

And I wondered if it was because somewhere along the line society had got re-ordered by those who had never had to sieve soup or make pastry, and so consequently they thought this was a dumb job that could be replaced by a machine. And because they held all these soup-and-pastry-makers in low esteem they thought they could be got rid of and set to something more useful instead. And whether that wasn't a horrid mistake that actually removed something utterly necessary from society, so that we're all trying to get our self-esteem and sense of belonging from a chilled packet from the supermarket, instead. Anyway, I don't have answers to these questions, so the moral of this story is it's weird how making soup can send you off into a three-hour train of thought about patriarchy, feminism, technology, and emotional well-being, and if only they'd had another teller on the checkout in Lidl, or if the guy in front me hadn't been conspicuously buying food to go with his alcohol, none of this would've happened.

Anyway the celery soup was delicious. Really exceptionally good, like something you'd get in a posh French restaurant, and I am cross that no-one told me how to make it before given how ludicrously easy it was. It was also very cheap, and is certainly going on my staple recipes list. The stuffed potato (I used cheese and mushrooms, with butter and some mushroom ketchup) was also good, the mushrooms kind of steamed inside the potato. It also got round one of the technical problems of baked potatoes (look, I eat a lot of baked potatoes) which is when all the butter melts and runs out and pools in the dish instead of the potato, because the butter was contained in the skin. It was quite contained in a way that a normal baked potato isn't, so could be a good dish for parties, or if people were wandering round eating. Also, will cook again. I'm not going to post the recipe as it's a no-brainer.

The stewed pear was perfectly nice. The lemon sauce took loads of faffing, wouldn't set, and when I turned the heat up, turned into lemon-flavoured scrambled egg. Lemon flavoured scrambled egg is surprisingly edible, and I was really hungry by then, but that will not be reappearing on my cooking list. Non, no, nyet.

I haven't eaten the 43g tin of lobster, yet.

Day Two/Three Update
Slight miscalculation yesterday as I'd planned to make oxtail soup. However I got home from work at 7pm and merrily gathered the ingredients before spotting the instructions 'boil for three hours'. Having swiftly taken stock I realised I didn't have a backup dinner plan and it was plough on or... well not much really, so I decided to carry on in the hope that the three hour thing was optional. Anyway, the ingredients looked very wholesome and peasanty. (I added the barley, which wasn't in the recipe, as I had loads I wanted to use up). It wasn't a lot of hassle to cook - apart from the time taken stewing.

By 8.30 I was ravenous so I went through the cookbooks looking for something to make in the meantime. I came upon this: I didn't have cream cheese, but I did have stilton, as well as the other ingredients, so I knocked together a salad. It was delicious, and staved off starvation until the soup was done.

After about half the recommended time, I sat down to a bowl of soup. It was nice, but also not like I expected, so I wasn't sure if I'd somehow got the recipe 'wrong'. It was light and fragrant, and didn't have the strong 'beefy' taste I remembered from when I'd previously had oxtail soup. It tasted of cloves and herbs and of vegetables as much as of meat. Anyway I ate it quite happily (also for wednesday lunch and dinner) but feel like I'd have another go at cooking it at some point, and see if turns out the same. I ate it with what the book called 'sippets' from the section entitled 'Things To Do With Stale Bread'. I'd run out of bread, but had some white sliced in the freezer, which I fried in quarters. It was tasty and crunchy, a great way to despatch some past-it slices.

I was also going to make some treacle scones but due to the problems with the oxtail soup, decided to bump that forward a day.

Started this on Sunday, and is now the end of Wednesday. Can report that I feel:
a) Disgustingly healthy, with more energy than I usually would at this point of the week and
b) Really hacked off with doing loads of washing up.

Day One/Two Update

Today I've been on the leftovers, so nothing to report, yet. Yesterday I wanted to go for a bike ride and take packed lunch, so thought I'd do this dubious sounding concoction, Egg, Cheese and Banana Salad. Now I'll freely admit I picked this for ewwww value, but it also piqued my curiosity. I halved the quantities and made it straight in a box, so what I ended up with was basically a little lettuce basket with the ingredients in the middle. Reader, it was delicious. The cheddary taste went well with the sweetness of the banana and the eggs; the lemon juice just added enough freshness to stop it being too gloopy, and the crispy lettuce was a great contrast. It also occurred to me that if you didn't do bread but still wanted some carbs as well as protein and veg, this is actually a great lunch to take to the office/on the train. 10/10, an unexpected win, and very easy to make.

For dinner I made this, and was quite looking forward to it. What I hadn't reckoned on was not having a mincer. I chopped up the meat fine, but then came to mincing the aubergines. Raw aubergine, I now realise, has a weird rubbery texture and when I tried to chop it up with a handheld blender-thingy it just compressed weirdly and refused to give in. I had to chop it up small with a knife. Anyway I baked the results, and ate them along with rice. It wasn't a disaster but it also wasn't anything special, quite bland, and looked dry, although as a matter of fact, underneath the breadcrumbs, it wasn't especially. Verdict: way too much aubergine wrangling for an edible, if entirely undistinguished, result.

For dessert, I did better, with this unusual fruit salad which intrigued me. It was very pretty, a nice cheery yellow, interspersed with bright red grapes and cherries. I put the walnuts on whole. It was quite sugary due to the sauce, which was the only bit I had doubts about. First, there was more sugar than needed, second there was too much sauce, and third I couldn't understand the point of the 'boil then boil again' instructions. However I wouldn't leave out sugar or sauce entirely, as it made the sharper elements like orange and pineapple nice and tasty. All in all, an excellent combination of crunchy things like cherries and apples, with softer, blander fruits. With the cherries, sherry, orange and walnuts it tasted kind of Chrismassy: I would definitely make this at Christmas if I had guests, and maybe serve with ice-cream. Full disclosure: my hand might have slipped a bit when I added the sherry. Yesh. No regretsh.

Ever since I spent a week living out a Victorian cookbook last year, I've been wanting to do the same thing with another decade, and this week being otherwise a particularly boring one, seemed a good time to try. Having resisted the blandishments of the 1970s I opted for the 20s/30s. I have three cookbooks from that era so decided to use a combination of the three, and also to spread the enterprise over ten days, partly because last time I found it knackering having to blog every day. This will allow me to basically cook for two days, which is normally what I do anyway.

Out of the three cookbooks, there's only one I'd cooked from before, the Complete Illustrated Cookery Book (1934). As a matter of fact this book is my go-to tome if I want a classic British recipe, but it is definitely aimed at a professional cook rather than a housewife. Despite being called 'illustrated', it mostly isn't. The second is Modern Cookery Illustrated (Odhams Press) which isn't dated but I'd guess is immediately pre-war. Modern Cookery Illustrated is aimed at the solidly prosperous middle-class family, and is the only one of the three to include gas and electric cooking temperatures. I'd never used it before, partly because of the dismal quality of the photographic illustrations, which make food look entirely unappetising. However, once I started looking at the recipes, I realised there was actually a lot of nice stuff in there I'd like to try. It also has lots of useful info like seasons for vegetables and which vitamins each contain. It also has menu suggestions and a useful thing I've never seen before: a list of what shopping you'd need to do each day to follow them, which would take the brainwork out of food planning. There's also a list of common 'fails' with specific dishes and what causes them. These are both brilliant ideas that modern cookbook writers should emulate.

The third is The Bestway Gift Book, which is obviously aimed at a younger woman who has just got married and set up house, and has lots of attractive pictures. It's the only one clearly intended as present, and as such is quite focused on sweets/treats rather than daily standards.

Anyway I decided to be less 'planned' than last time, partly because I had three books to play with, and partly to follow the advice in the Odhams Press book to buy what looked fresh and wholesome. I went to the greengrocer, where it was immediately obvious that much of the vegetation completely failed to meet the standards laid out in the book. Ditto the vegetables in the supermarket. I bought bacon from the butcher and some oxtail to make oxtail soup, and went to Sainsbury's, emerging at the till looking like I was doing the shopping for my great-aunt who's been dead since 1963.

One thing I did notice in all the cookbooks is that seafood I can't afford appears as a common staple: oysters, sea-bream, lobster. At this point I got cross that I had never in my life eaten lobster, so I bought a 43g tiny tin for £1.10. I'm puzzled as to how on an island all these things got impenetrably expensive, when they clearly didn't use to be. Answers on a haddock skin, please.

Anyway, I thought I'd want something to snack on during the week, so I kicked off by making these biscuits from the Bestway book. They were easy to cook, look classy and taste very pleasant, although I think they would have benefited from a pinch of salt. Would be ideal to take to a party or suchlike as a break from the endless cupcakes. But be careful, they cook really quickly.

Sunday, 1 May 2016

Home Fires: Bring it Back!

Terrible news! Found out today that ITV won't be commissioning another series of Home Fires. Quite rightly, somebody has started a petition to bring it back. Please sign it, here.

Now I know it's only a TV show and there's shit going on in the world and all that but humans need stories. Stories show us how to deal with difficult situations and how to behave with dignity. Humans tell stories abut things that are important. And if you don't ever see people like yourselves in stories then you easily get to thinking that's because you're not important.

One of the reasons I loved Home Fires was that it showed just how ordinary people were important, and how they helped influence history. I loved the mix of ages and classes going in the storyline, and the regional accents that seem to be heard on TV less and less these days.

Home Fires had very good viewing figures, strong writing, a high level of historical veracity, and a thoroughly excellent cast of actors who largely weren't 'names'. I have no idea why ITV would wish to cancel it.

If you want to know more about why I think it deserves to come back, you can read my review, below.

If, like me, you grew to loathe Downton Abbey, you may be suspicious of Sunday-night vintage-costumed TV. Because of this I was initially cautious of Home Fires, ITV's world-war-two set series about a group of women in the Women's Institute in the fictional village of Great Paxford, in Cheshire. Oh how wrong I was! Home Fires is literally the best thing ITV have made in ages.

If there's one thing I don't like in a historical series like Downton, it's setting up a 'good old days' where everyone knew their place. Because the twentieth century wasn't like that, not even the Edwardian era. Home Fires sidesteps this magnificently, by presenting a world that is full of change, bringing opportunity and threat in equal measure.

Home Fires is based on Jambusters, a popular book by Julie Summers about the WI in WW2, so it has solid academic research to back it up, and its reliance on frequently-ignored details is one of the things that makes it so great. Too often, films and TV about great historical events concentrate on the men involved, and on bloody and decisive battles. Film directors parade their claims to 'realism' by making movies as bloody and explosive as possible. But many important things about history are neither bloody nor explosive, and not all the explosions are of the bloody kind either - some are social, economic, scientific and yes, sexual.

During World war Two, ordinary people understood that success or failure relied on many factors - organisation, morale, production of war material, scientific and social advantage. If you watch films made at the time, this is abundantly clear: but in the macho post-war film world all these things were swept away in favour of guns, and men, and guns and men and guns. Home Fires puts all this interesting social, economic and scientific history back in its rightful place. In doing so, I feel that it's rightfully and slightly subversive.

To start with, it unapologetically focuses on the women, without ever making the men irrelevant. The details of these women's lives are allowed to matter, as are the relationships between them, as much as with the men in their lives. Sometimes, series focusing on women's lives are twee, sometimes they are comedic, sometimes they are slushy and romantic. Sometimes they are just awful and implausible, like the terrible series about nurses in WW1. Home Fires doesn't do any of these things: it lets its characters breathe, and treats their joys and sorrows as worthy of respect.

One of the things I enjoy most is that with the exception of one or two characters, there is a good deal of moral ambiguity going on. Posh Mrs Cameron is both a good egg at heart and an insufferable snob; Mrs Scottlock, the accountant, is both trying to protect her friends and inform to the police, and Stan the farmer is both a bit of a hero and also a bit of a nutjob. The vicar's wife is honorably not having an affair while her husband is a POW, but you know she's absolutely dying to, while closet lesbian Teresa may invite sympathy but is also giving the run-around to an entirely honourable RAF officer who frankly deserves better.

Then there's the men, who are neither better or worse. Well, except in the case of horrible Bob. I'm hoping horrible Bob will get his face melted by an incendiary bomb, because I can't think of anything else bad enough. I hate horrible Bob with a vengence, not only because he abuses his wife, but also because he is a writer. We have never been treated to horrible Bob's horrible prose, but I just know that it is vile egotistical sub-Hemingway trash in which the main character is Bob, portrayed as a hero. Look, I might be getting over-involved here, ok.

Anyway, apart from Bob, there's lovely Czech army officer Captain Marek Novotny. Now, I do have a complaint about Novotny: why is he played by a Danish guy? Are there not any actors in the Czech republic? Are they all permenantly engaged in productions of Kafka? Cannot one small central European state muster one leading man appropriate for an unhappily-married middle-aged lady to lust after? Anyway, ever in the service of journalistic integrity, I emailed the Czech Embassy to ask for their response, and they pointed out that since Maigret was currently being played by Mr Bean, they weren't that upset. (I'm taking that to mean they are upset, a little, but are taking it on the chin, in a manly sort of fashion.)

Anyway I think Marek is maybe too good to be true, and may turn out to be a German spy. If he isn't, I'm giving him two weeks before he's arrested for being one.

Anyway, I'm off to watch the next episode. Come friendly bombs, and fall on Bob!

PS If ITV don't commission another series of this, I'm going round with a pitchfork. A vintage, era-appropriate one, obviously.

Monday, 28 March 2016

Hometown Blues

This week, since I had the week off, I went to meet my mother in Stroud, where I grew up. I normally go on a Saturday. On Saturdays the town is busy, buzzing, and chic in a London-down-for-the-weekend way, with a farmers' market selling all sorts of artisanal and organic goodies. It looks like the very soul of feelgood, homegrown prosperity, with its lovely Cotswold stone buildings and cute vintage shops.

I hadn't seen it on a Tuesday, for a while, though. On a Tuesday, it looked quite different, unhappy and neglected. I had an hour before I met my Mum, and one of the things I wanted to do was go to the knitting shop where I'd often bought wool. The lady that used to run this shop was ancient, and had swollen, blue-veined legs, so she didn't look for stuff or tidy up much. It was like a jumble sale, and an uncareful tug could cause a cascade of wool to tumble onto your head. It was nonetheless an excellent shop, and very well used. I knew the lady that ran it was old: she was actually 90 when she died, last month. The shop is closing in June. It'd been there all my life: I remember it being there when the single-screen cinema was still open, almost opposite. I think that closed in 1976.

There are a few other businesses still open that were there when I was a child. One is the sewing shop. The off-licence – a proper one that sold obscure things like bottles of Shrub and five kinds of sherry – lasted until two years ago. It's a café now. Everything is a café now. I don't know how they'll all survive – I suppose on the Saturday traffic, since it seemed pretty quiet on a Tuesday.

There's pretty much two parts of town, now, which there wasn't when I was a kid. There's kind of a square of main streets, and it's like someone drew a line diagonally between two corners. Below that line, there's Poundland where Woolies used to be, and a Brighthouse, Weatherspoons, and a dirty kebab shop in what I think used to be a chemist. It still has beautiful curved windows and a wood frontage, so maybe it was a dress shop, once. There's plenty of empty shops, too.

In the upper, posher quadrant, there's health food shops and extortionately priced vintage, a bookshop and organic café and the acupuncturist. Boutique clothes, and gifts. The art shop. There's a fabric shop too, but I heard her talking about closing. Greggs made a mistake, and landed accidentally in the posh quarter. I remember the shop that used to be Greggs: it was a haberdashers, and everything was stored in beautiful polished wood shelves. The whole place was lined with wood and brass, and gleamed. There was a mechanical dumb waiter, for bringing goods up and down stairs. I think they ripped it all out in about 1981.

I know humans are adaptable. That's how they survive. But when I think about some of the things I remember, growing up, I wonder if someone even ten years younger would believe me, or think I dreamt it or made it up. We lived on a road about two miles out of town. We called it the 'main road'. I think there was about one car per minute. It wasn't a rural idyll: there was a factory opposite, it made diesel engines for boats. It was thanks to this that I first encountered the other side of the 70s – 'Daaad, what's a picket?' They were always very friendly, mind. It was a bit like the pub, except with tea in flasks. Just a bunch of blokes, hanging out. If you did go to the pub, down the road, there was beer and cider, and peanuts to eat. The peanuts were in packets attached to a cardboard picture of a lady, and as the barman pulled off the packets, her tits would be exposed.

There was a bus into town every twenty minutes, except at some point they changed it to every thirty minutes. My Mum was majorly brassed off about this, I remember her whinging that now she'd actually have to check the times, instead of just going out to get the next one, which was her normal habit.

If you went across the road, and down the path, past the factory, you'd get to the railway. Before Beeching, there'd been a halt there, and the signs had gone, but the platforms remained, overgrown with weeds and cracking. Sometimes the old guys that worked on the trains would apologise, when they found out where we lived, for the hassle of us having to get off in town and catch a bus home. Once, one said: never mind, we're on time, and we never get speed up on that hill, I'll tell 'im to stop and let you off. And he did. He stopped the train, and we got out, onto the empty nameless platform, where the grass cheerfully waved from the cracks. I felt like the bloody Queen. They weren't ticket collectors then, they were Guards, and they ruled the train. They were all old, they were were all men, and they all wore an array of enamel union badges, shiny against their navy British Rail uniforms. Sometimes, they would wax lyrical about GWR.

Not everyone who worked on the transport was male. When I was very little, we lived at my Grandmother's, on the other side of town, in an old house surrounded by trees. The same regular buses – double-deckers – would lurch round the corners of the steep, twisty road. The bus conductor – it was the 70s so she was a Conductress – was called Eve. Eve was in her 50's, I think, so maybe she started her job in the war, when women were recruited for that kind of thing. Eve wore a navy blue uniform suit, with a knee-length, A-line skirt; thick brown American Tan stockings with a seam up the back; and sensible lace-up shoes. She also had a dyed blonde curly perm, immaculately sprayed into place, and a peaked bus company cap, on top. To complete this ensemble she had the usual union and bus company badges, and the tools of her trade slung crosswise across her, like a Mexican gunslinger with pistols. One leather strap held a pouch with the money, and the other had the machine which issued the tickets. She'd set the amount on a little dial, like a combination lock, whirl the handle on the side, and with a little noise of dials, the machine would spit forth tickets. I was completely transfixed by this, and I adored Eve, who, as well as issuing tickets, would also issue instructions to the driver, carry shopping bags, calm wayward children, and dismiss anyone who was thruppence short with an instruction to make it up next time (I think this happened a lot: old people were still having trouble with decimalisation). She seemed ready for anything, with her mastery of the ticket machine, and mysterious knowledge of fares. My hippie mother always looked a little ragged, bothered and run-down (later I would work out that this was to do with being married to my father, but I hadn't got to that yet) but Eve was serene, gracious, and utterly in charge of her lurching, diesel-scented domain. I worshipped her, and I was absolutely gutted when, at some point, she vanished, presumably to retire.

Eve wasn't the only working woman I remember. There was Mrs Guy, who ran the shop behind our house, a hefty lady who was the local rolling-pin throwing champion. (Yes, that really is a thing. Presumably it deterred shoplifters.) There was also Mrs Harris, who ran the shop in my Grandmother's village. Often, I would be sent to this shop. You would go in, the door would trigger a bell, and Mrs Harris would appear, anything from 1 to 5 minutes later, from the house opposite. I don't remember what it sold, but I do remember the shelves of cans. There were three boxes of crisps, and for years I thought crisps came in three flavours: red, blue, and green. I do remember the food my grandmother liked. Later, when my grandmother was too frail to go to the shop, Mrs Harris used to bring her shopping down to the house. There'd be brown bread, unsalted butter, and ham, which was sliced off a real, huge ham, with one of those slicing machines. Also tomatoes and cucumber, and a round sponge cake with jam and buttercream in the middle, and thin crunchy white icing with half glacé cherries spaced around the edge. My mother despised this stuff. 'Junk-food', she'd say, and shudder, fastidiously. My mother proudly did 1970s vegetarian cooking, full of beans and grains, and she judged everything according to how brown it was.

Mrs Harris was also a fount of local information. The village at that time was largely populated by old ladies, a sort of mafia of old women who kept everything in order, as well as knitting, gardening, and gossiping. Some of them still had menfolk attached, but they didn't really matter very much. I remember my mother referring to Mrs So-and-so once, with the caveat, 'of course, she's a widow.' I must have a been a bit older then, because I asked, since when? Oh, since the war. What, the second world war? No, said my mother. The previous one. That meant Mrs so-and-so had been widowed at least 60 years.

Weirdly, the shadow of this conflict hung over the village in the way that the more recent one didn't. There was a lord of the manor, a perfectly pleasant chap who was a country solicitor in town, and who'd open the house, annually, to the masses. My grandmother thought he was a bit of a usurper. 'Of course', she'd say, 'His father never expected to get that place – if only the elder brother hadn't died in the war. He was the real heir.' The elder brother was buried, in the churchyard, along with various other members of the family who'd died, dutifully, in various colonial conflicts. They're still there, by the way, almost the only ones who are - the live as well as the dead. A while back, he bumped into my mother in town. 'D'you know, we've still got that watercolour you painted of our house,' he said. 'D'you need it back?' My mother had completely forgotten the existence of this painting she'd painted 40 years previously, so she declined, and said he was free to keep it. Six weeks later, unasked, he sent her a cheque for £200. Because, you know, that's the sort of chap he was.

That village is full of people who moved from London, now. There's no shop, no buses, no pub. My mother sold the house, when her mother died, and they sold it again. All the trees around it have been cut down, so now you can see straight in.

Many of the people that live in villages like it now come from London. They get on the train, and go back to work there. There's an enormous amount of money kicking around – too much, maybe. The village pub near my parents is now a gastro pub, and when I texted a friend from school, to ask if he was going there for new year, he texted back to say he'd gone, but had to leave – 'too full of trustafarians, sadly'.

Of course there was always rich and poor in the town. But it wasn't split down the middle, and it didn't look away, like a place that didn't own itself. It rotated, sometimes tediously, sometimes claustrophobically, around its own axis. What I find most startling when I remember it – other than my parents complaining that too much of the town was taken up by building societies – is how it was ruled, by the rule of people in it, in their own tiny little circuses. The old guys, who ruled the running of trains. The conductress, ruling the bus. The Lord of the Manor, who ruled in name, while the old ladies ruled in practice. The town council, and the shenanigans thereof. And the pickets, with their flasks of tea, running the hours of the factory. They were arbitrary, and sometimes outdated, unreasonable or odd, but if you wanted to deal with them, you always dealt with a human. How can you arbitrarily stop a train? Wouldn't there be alarms, reports, sackings? But I guess not, because everybody knew so-and-so, and how long he'd worked there, and if you're going to deal with him, you have to deal with the rest of us, boss. Or maybe, you know, somebody just threw a rolling pin at your head.

The other thing I remember, which makes me doubt even my own memories, is the overwhelming sense of safety. It might have been an illusion, of course, but it must have been an illusion shared by many. The village shop, with the open door, and the till just there, and the shelves, just waiting to be emptied. It didn't occur to her that people might steal, because round here people just weren't like that. Other people might be bad, out there, but everyone knew, we weren't. Things were safe, and you knew where you were. The sky was empty and blue, and in the winter there was frost-flowers on the windows. The dead were in the graveyard, the Lord was in the manor, and the union had your back.

I'm not quite sure how the place came to lose itself. It happened gradually, not suddenly. The old people just died. The houses got sold. Everyone got cars, and they built a supermarket, and then another, and then a third one. The buses went. They built housing estates, on the fields. If you have a problem, now, you won't be arguing with a human about it. Nobody rules their fiefdom, their train or bus or village shop. They all have bosses, and rules, and systems, and concerns about health and safety. The same all-pervading anxiety, the insecurity, the sense of division that started somewhere else turned up, got off the train, and decided to stay there, since it'd stayed everywhere else.

I do, I think, remember when it started. It was 1979, and Mrs Thatcher got elected as the Prime Minister. I didn't notice, my parents were in the middle of the divorce from hell, and all they did was cry and shout and throw things at each other. To get away from this, my father took me up to his sister's, in the Wirral, for a week or two. My father spent most of it moaning to his sister about his marriage so my elder cousin Jane took me for a walk. In the distance, across the Dee, we could see huge industrial plants. I asked what they were, and Jane, then 13, explained to me about steelworks and unemployment and closures and how Capitalism exploited the workers. My parents never talked like this, so it was something of a revelation.

We came back to the house. The Buggles, Video Killed the Radio Star was on the TV. I wondered, possibly for the first time, whether my father might be insane, and what was going to happen to all of us. It was the end of 1979, video killed the radio star, and that was the end of that.