Friday, 29 June 2012

The sole of simplicity

It is summer. No, you wouldn’t know it some of the time, – quite a lot of the time – as the rain continues to fall in almost Biblical volume.

The weather has been so crazy that, in the last 24 hours, train routes between England and Scotland are at a standstill because of landslides on both east and west coast lines.

Which does raise the question of whether God is an Englishman blocking off Scotland – or a Scot blocking off England.

But in the south east of England at least, it is warm – albeit often a close warmth; not pleasant, but sweaty and oppressive.

Combine that with my annual state of post-conference kanckeredness and you have, if not a recipe for disaster, than a recipe for not knowing what the recipe should be.

The Jersey Royals seem to have ended – and I’m not sure about the English asparagus.

The garden isn’t ready yet to harvest enough that it makes menu choices for me.

So it’s what I now recognise as an annual situation: sitting down and wondering, with enthusiasm that’s blurred around the edges, just what I want to cook and eat.

The answer usually has total simplicity at its heart.

Last weekend, as I wended my way along Broadway Market, a quick glance revealed that Vikki had a small number of slip soles on the ice. Now they’re supposed to be small, but these were hardly tiny.

The Other Half is not overly fond of being served fish whole – his usual explanation is that it’s awkward to deal with when there are loads of other things on your plate.

Looking at those delicate soles, though, there was no way that I was going to have them filleted. So what to do?

A solution gradually took on coherent shape. And it was Italian in form.

First up – a minestrone. Okay – not a strictly accurate Genovese version, as there was no lard at the base and no pancetta either.

But given that, in reality, there are probably as many different versions of minestrone as there are people who have ever made it, variations seem to be entirely in keeping with the sense of the dish.

It began, as it should, with a sofritto. Onion, garlic, celery and carrot, chopped and sliced finely and then cooked gently in olive oil for around 10 minutes. This is simply the Italian form of the French mirepoix.

After that, a big squirt of tomato purée, loads of ground black pepper, a tin of decent quality tomatoes in their own juice (and with that juice rinsed out of the can and into the pan) and a couple of potatoes, peeled but left whole.

And then you need to add some stock. Now because I hadn’t been planning this, there wasn’t time to defrost some of my own stock.

I’d been looking for a store cupboard stock for just such circumstances – one that doesn't have a stack of additives and chemicals, but also one that that doesn't include palm oil, the farming and harvesting of which is seriously threatening the survival of the orangutan by devastating the habitat they live in.

So it’s thanks to Diana, who had read of my concerns in an earlier post and knew the solution.

Kallo’s Just Bouillon vegetable stock cubes fit the bill.

The ingredient list reads thus:

Hydrolysed Vegetable Protein (contains Soya), Sea Salt, Vegetable Fat, Potato Starch, Carrots (3%), Onion (2.5%), Tomato (1.5%), Sugar, Spices (Mace, Celery Seeds, Pepper), Lovage.

It beats the very similar Marigold Bouillon on the basis of having no palm oil – and it’s about 10p cheaper per 100g too. Since it also tastes okay, this is a win-win option.

And then all you do is cover the pan and leave it to simmer gently for a couple of hours, stirring occasionally.

After that, if the potatoes haven’t broken up, give them a little help with a fork.

This is the point at which you add the dried spaghetti, broken into small pieces. The packet said that the cooking time is about nine minutes.

But because it’s not in boiling water, but in simmering stock (and tomato juice etc) it will take longer. I gave it an initial 15 minutes, cooked with some fine beans and sliced courgette, both of which would also have needed less time if in boiling water.

After that, podded peas and broad beans went in and were given about seven minutes – again, longer than if simply being boiled.

And that was that – served with a drizzle of my best virgin oil, a dollop of pesto and a sprinkling of grated Parmesan (not for The Other Half, of course), we had a very substantial, tasty – and healthy – starter.

The second course was then simplicity itself: the soles, brushed with olive oil and cooked under a hot grill for approximately four minutes a side, served with a piece of lemon and a garnish of the first samphire of the summer.

Desert was even easier and simpler: after a week away, just enough strawberries had reached perfect ripeness to give us a portion each.

When they’re as fresh as that, you don’t need anything else with them.

With some of that, it almost felt like a cheat to call it cooking.

Thursday, 28 June 2012

The household wages war

The clock hand was on the downward sweep after marking the hour. It was finally dark after another long June day.

Quietly, we opened the door and headed out onto the patio. The security light flicked on, suddenly alert.

There, on the basil, were two snails. On the thyme, another. On the lupins, several. On the wire cat planter, several more.

At least a dozen made the arced trip over the fence to smash in the carpark, where they provide a protein boost for the local birds.

The previous night, The Other Half had found something like the same number – and they had taken the same route to oblivion.

A few have been found drowned in beer in the snail inns, as the entire household has become embroiled in the fight against the gastropod terrorists.

Boudicca flicked one off the catnip a week or so ago, furious that it was desecrating her drugs. Then Otto managed to curl herself up on the entire plant pot to protect the rather bedraggled plants.

Loki, in a manner befitting her role as the household’s ditzy tabby, has continued to look a bit vague and left the rest of us to wage the war.

When I arrived back from Bournemouth almost a week ago, it was with some tripidation. A neighbour had happily agreed to ensure that everything was watered – although that was, in part, rendered fairly pointless as several days had apparently seen relentless rain bouncing off any surface if hit.

Out of interest, does anyone know if the drought in the south east has been formally declared at an end yet?

But back to the tribulations of an urban gardener.

The strawberries had produced enough ripened fruit that, on Saturday, we were able to have a bowl each as dessert. No cream, no ice cream – not even any pepper or Balsamico. When the fruit is so, so good, you need nothing else with it.

The broad beans had produced flowers, which are now opening to reveal pristine white petals with a delicate, black pattern.

The runner has had a fit of Jack and the Beanstalk-like aspiration and has curled tendrils most of the way up my bamboo erection.

The borlotti has reached out to grab a piece of horizontal string.

Both the latter two had the lowest leaves revealing some snail damage, but nothing too drastic. Two of the pea plants had been eaten to nothing, while the other three are making slow progress.

A snail was stuck to the inside of one of the pots I’d buried in the bed.

At the weekend, The Other Half visited our local ironmonger and bought back a role of 3mm gauge wire, from which we then cut six pieces.

They were carefully curved and then went, three each, into the planters with the radishes, and the lamb’s lettuce and baby salad leaves in, forming a framework for pieces of enviromesh, which provides excellent protection from pests, while also leaving plants able to get water and air. Everything already looks much happier.

And after reading something that suggested that snails and slugs hate slithering over used coffee grounds, we have dutifully saved several days' worth, drained and dried them, and then spooned them into the basil and lupin pots.

More will follow.

Away from the snail problem, the nasturtiums that I planted alongside the vine are providing huge amounts of joyous colour – and we’ve replanted two pots worth, which I’d grown from seed, into a basket that now hangs from the wall, giving a bit more variety of height, as well as promising yet more colour when these flower.

The vine itself has now grown enough that we can start training it onto the trellis, after The Other Half had cleared that of the dried remains of the Russian Vine.

Remarkably, we may have grapes this year. Homegrown grapes – it’s an extraordinary idea.

New catnip has now been planted. I’ve taken one of the plastic cloches that I was using to protect it from the other local cats, cut two panels in the sides and then stuck pieces of the enviromesh to it.

It provides far better protection than before, but with far better ventilation and less of an obvious way for snails to get in than the ventilation holes at the top, which can now be closed.

It’s not perfect – the sticking tape doesn’t attach to the mesh particularly well – but it is another step forward in the challenge of finding solutions for garden problems.

And quite clearly, defeating the mollusc pest requires a mixed approach – with after-dark hunting as a particularly productive approach.

The local birds must be loving this.

Wednesday, 27 June 2012

I have a camera

Last week in Bournemouth was an unusual conference from a personal, photographic perspective: given the amount of extra social media work our team was doing, I wasn’t slated for any work snapping.

That, of course, had one massive advantage: it meant that my bags were lighter, as I decided to do without an DSLR for the trip.

But it still managed to be an interesting week photographically.

First, because it offered the first official uses of a couple of pictures I’d taken properly: one was a portrait of Neville Lawrence (see below), which was ripped off in 10 seconds at best, with a crush forming around.

I like to think I captured a sense of the quiet dignity of the man.

The second was of Eleanor Smith, the UNISON president for the last year, whose term ended at the close of conference.

For that, I’d had far more time than I’m used to getting, and was fairly chuffed with the result.

When I'd originally processed it on my super duper screen at work, one colleague, walking past, had glanced and assumed that it was Michelle Obama, demanding to know how come I'd got a picture of her!

I'm very happy with the glamour of the shot – but it's not 'weak' glamour, so to speak. Eleanor is a woman who makes everything she wears look like Chanel (yet she's a grandmother, for goodness sake!) but it combines glamour and strength. There's nothing passive or submissive about this shot.

I'm really proud of it.

But away from any such ‘official’ photography I was left, for the week, with my iPhone.

As usual, I was photographing my food – I posted one result earlier this week). But there are always other things that are worth snapping too, especially when you’re away.

As I mentioned not long ago, I’ve noticed that I’ve become rather fond of photographing flowers, although it never started out as a deliberate thing – and indeed, it’s not any sort of a ‘project’ even now.

Using the iPhone with an eye on something more than a snapshot for memory’s sake is an interesting challenge.

On the one hand, the most obvious advantage is its very size and portability. I was never without it, so I was never without a camera.

On the other hand, while the inbuilt camera is remarkably good (I’m still on the third generation, having refused to upgrade because the camera is decent) there is no adjustable zoom or lighting or anything else.

If you have good light, then it can produce remarkably good pictures.

Picture framing can be a tad awkward – certainly if you’re pointing it in a direction where you’re not actually looking into the screen – meaning that ‘straight on’ doesn’t always work as you want it to.

But all in all, it’s not impossible to get interesting results with a phone camera.

There are really big questions that phone cameras raise. Indeed, I'd go further than that and say that modern communications technology as a whole has massive ramifications for society as a whole – see Leveson, for a start.

The British media, as a whole, is trying to work out what it can provide/sell to the consumer – that's us. Increasingly, it's sensation and gossip.

And local stories that, in all honesty, would not have got even near a national daily only a few years ago.

But that's the world we live in. And 'citizen journalism' is an offshoot. With real journalists either dumped or made to turn a few tweets into a story, we might come to regret that. But that's the way it is, at present, in the UK at least.

But setting that aside, there are things that you can do with a mobile phone – and they don't always have to be  snapshots for the sake of memory.

They're not works of art, but I include a couple of last week's examples for your delectation and delight. As a slight technical note – the flower photographs (taken on my phone) have had very little done with them).

Monday, 25 June 2012

Good food in Bournemouth after all these years?

It was in June 2006 that I first visited Bournemouth. It’s not difficult to remember the date because it was also the first year in which, thanks to the Catalan Dragons, I had visited France.

In fact, that trip to Perpignan (and Barcelona) had been just a few weeks before. And after experiencing the wonderful food out there, one of the things I’d been enormously looking forward to had been trying food in a seaside resort in England.
Expecting much, I was severely disappointed. Not only was nothing we ate even close to being in the same class as what’d we’d eaten on that holiday, it was pricier.
In the interests of strict accuracy, I should say that I had actually been to Bournemouth before. But that was on a family holiday – and I have no memories of food at all, apart from that we were self catering, which in my mother’s case, meant an awful lot of an awful lot of mornings were spent dragging the rest of us around supermarkets to buy food.
The only thing I really remember about that holiday was meeting Tom O’Connor in a TV shop.
But subsequent trips to Bournemouth since 2006 have seen gradual improvements in the fodder I’ve been able to get my gnashers into.
And in many ways, this year’s food was, in general, possibly the simplest as well as the best.
When you’re at the seaside, you really have to have fish and chips. At least once. We did it twice – on our first night and on third.
In both cases, it was at the hotel – once in the restaurant and once in the bar.
On both occasions, the fish was excellent and the batter top notch – crispy and light as a feather; an utter joy to eat.
 On the first, the chips were a hand-cut tower (apparently they like them like this in the House of Commons too) and there was a very minty streak of pea purée, plus a generous dollop of good tartare sauce.
As a bar dish (slightly cheaper) the chips were not so obviously hand cut – although they were served in one of those miniature frying baskets that are so popular these days and are rather fun. It came with the same minted pea purée.
Supposed fish ‘n’ chip specialist Harry Ramsden’s, which is just on the other side of the pier, could learn a thing or two. On the basis of my visit there, the last time that I was in town, two years ago, the hotel was not only far better quality, but also a fairer price too.
The Highcliffe is one of the very few hotels I’ve stayed in where the food is worth eating – and breakfast is not excluded from that equation. Okay, there might not have quite been the egg station of Brighton’s Metropole, but there was a cook on duty making fresh fried eggs.
And unlike some places I could mention, nothing that you served yourself from under the heaters was crozzled to death from having sat there for hours before service even started.
Efforts to have 'Healthy' lunches were mostly dashed by eating on the go – and the best lunch of the week came a rather a surprise.
It could hardly have been more simple: with only minutes to spare before going back into the conference hall to report, after my jaunt to see the Oceanarium’s otters, I grabbed a Cornish pasty from one of the conference centre snack outlets.
Now, I don’t know if it really was Cornish – and therefore fulfilled the EU rules on protected origin status – but my expectations were low. In the event, instead of taking just the few bites I had imagined simply to sustain me, I scoffed the lot – and was disappointed the following day to find they’d all gone before I got there.
But as for dinners, the treat of the week came on Monday night.
Slumped in the hotel lounge (that’s a posh word for a bar) after a long day, we mused on where to eat.
A couple of similarly working trips to Bournemouth in the past, I’d lunched at an eatery on the sea front. I couldn’t remember its name, but I did remember that I’d had plaice and that it had been very, very good.
Indeed, it was probably my first decent culinary experience in the town.
The internet had, for once, provided me with nothing that I was sure was what I remembered, but in the hope that whatever it was was still there, I suggested we wander down.
In the event, it was there. WestBeach is its name.
We secured a table without a reservation – and given the number of people who came in while we dined, that was lucky.
WestBeach is a slightly unconventional cross between a restaurant and a bar. For instance, some people were only coming in to sit at a booked table for a drink, and there were TVs showing that night’s football (sound off, though).
The décor is all blond woods and rushes, giving it a hint of the sea-washed, which is very relaxing.
The food is excellent.
 I started with rollmops: according to the menu, an appetiser, but my pair of rollmops were two fillets from a pretty substantial herring. It was delicious – and, at £3, damned good value for money.

And then came my culinary treat of the week: a whole – well, cracked – Lymington crab.

It arrived in a beautiful display; on a bed of ice, with a lime mayo that complimented the sweetness of the flaky meat quite gloriously.

There was a vast – ridiculously so – bowl of fries and another of salad.

Even after being pre-cracked, it still took some, err, cracking. But it was so, so worth the effort. Super taste and texture.

And to finish, I enjoyed three balls of Purbeck ice cream – this is, after all, the Purbeck coast.

Vanilla, chocolate and raspberry – all very, very good. But the raspberry was to die for. I wish I'd just order that.

Now, take the fries and salad out of the equation, and you have perhaps the closest I've come to a meal that is comparable in size and construction to what I so loved in Barcelona.

I am, indeed, specifically thinking of the wonderful Els Barrils, a Galcian fish restaurant, not far from Gaudí's crazy Sagrada Família, where I ate my first lobster, sandwiched between a course of padron peppers and one of sublime orange and chocolate ice cream.

And, most to the point, that is a restaurant where I have never felt overwhelmed by the amount of food served to me; where I could roundly polish off all three courses; a restaurant where the quality of the oh-so-simple food was such that I still dream about it.

Is that enough of a compliment to pay to WestBeach? Well, I do mean it.

The Other Half, having paid perhaps a greater amount of attention to Raymond Blanc's Very Hungry Frenchman series than I had, spotted a wine he'd recommended on the menu; a 2010 pinot gris reserve by Joseph Cattin of Alsace. And that was delightful too.

Nothing for the rest of the week came close.

But my faith in Bournemouth food – and in south coast English seaside food – was revived.

If you're in that town any time – try it. No. it isn't the cheapest, but when I compare it to my other culinary experiences in Bournemouth, it's no more expensive (that whole crab was under £20) and it was so, so much better.

Sunday, 24 June 2012

Who's idea was muzak with the Cornflakes?

There is nothing quite like hotel living. Or at least, not when you’re staying in a hotel for work.

At home, for instance, you don’t have to face muzak with your bacon and egg. Shown to the furthest corner of the dining area first thing on Thursday morning, The Other Half was growling instantly: “Who thought I needed cheerful music with my breakfast?”

Perhaps it was a deliberate technique for getting guests in and out as quickly as possible, because after bolting his fodder with more than usual alacrity, he bolted outside for a fag, muttering grimly that, if he didn’t escape quickly, he was going “to murder someone”.

But we were in sometimes-sunny Bournemouth for a full week, so there was no escape. And although I am well over the original strangeness of it, there is something rather odd about meeting colleagues, bosses (clients) and members at breakfast for an entire week.

Odd – and not perhaps conducive to relaxation.

My own responsibilities involved penning reports on this year's UNISON conference.

That is, in effect, the union's parliament, and the debates are as impassioned and varied as one might expect.

Of course, as a member of the team staffing the conference - albeit a freelance member - obviously I cannot contribute to the debates. But like anyone else in that position, I suspect, there are times when I desperately want to say something.

So I have to make do with little notes to myself in the margins of my spiral-bound reporters' notebook.

At other times, I simply long for one of those rolly-eyed emoticons, when hearing something that i Personally find risable.

But there are always, of course, highlights. TUC president Paul Kenny turned up and delivered an entertaining speech while making me wonder if he was Ray Winstone's long lost twin. I kept expecting him to turn to Dave Pentis at any moment and say: "You're the daddy".

Neville Lawrence addressed conference on Friday and reduced much of the hall to tears with a quiet and dignified retelling of how he heard about his son's murder and the struggle for justice that has followed.

And he went on to say that privatisation of the police would be a dreadful step, with profit coming before solving crime.

When you look at the case of his own son or that of murdered private detective Daniel Morgan - let alone many miscarriages of justice - that's a salutary reminder of just how negative a step such a sell-off would be.

Carmen Mayusa, a nurse and trade union lead from Colombia, where they murder and 'disappear' trade unionists as regularly as most of us take a shower, made everyone realise that things could be a lot worse, while four of the wives of the Miami Five highlighted the injustice of the continuing imprisonment of their husbands by the US.

Our own little team was based in a bunker - sorry, room - surrounded by tons of cable and the usual piles of conference documentation, trying to keep the tech running while filing a mass of reporting from the conference hall.

Away from the serious stuff, there were chances to enjoy the banter - I know who the Manchester United fans are and had great fun joining delegates to watch the England v Ukraine Euro 2012 match.

I admit to having been one of three England fans (the others, a father and son, are pictured here) running through a remarkably wide repertoire of about four songs, while several Scottish (Ukrainian for the night) members drowned their sorrows as the co-hosts failed to score.

A very rapid lunchtime trip to the Bournemouth Oceanarium, after reading that it had introduced a pair of otters last year, proved thoroughly enjoyable.

Stan and Roxy are Oriental small-clawed otters aged two, who have been at the Oceanarium since last November.

Otters are very sociable – but only within their own family groups. It's hoped that Stan and Roxy will breed – and so their group will get larger.

One of the staff was feeding them when I was there – and explained how they help to keep them active and alert. We've thankfully come a long way since animals were simply stuck in an enclosure without any thought to their mental state.

With just the iPhone for this trip, I managed a rather splendid shot of a spiny tailed lizard.

It's well worth a visit anyway, as I skimmed around some of the other exhibits: lobsters - impossible not to think, 'dinner!' There were sharks too and a little turtle (or similar) that spotted me at the window and turned to swim right up to me

The otters gave me a much-needed dose of cuteness, that sent me back into the conference hall with a glow about me.

But for sheer, much-needed serenity, there were moments of total calm in the early mornings, sitting outside watching the sea, with the sounds of the wind, the waves and the birds soothing. There was food - and there were some personal moments of note - but that'll have to wait for another day.

Monday, 18 June 2012

Never second thoughts

Poor old Argyll and Bute council.

You have to ask why councils - and other parts of the public services - are supposed be PR whizzes; haven't they better things to do? - but they could have done with a PR wizard last week as they brought down a shitstorm onto their own heads.

The cause was simple: they had dared to 'censor' the blog of a nine-year-old child.

Since April, Martha Payne had, with her father's help, been publishing her Never Seconds blog, photographing her school dinner and then rating it for a series of things, from healthiness to enjoyment to how many hairs there were in it.

As a sample, one of the blog entries commented: "I'm a growing kid and I need to concentrate all afternoon and I can't do it on one croquette. Do any of you think you could?"

Now, I first spotted - and tweeted a link to - Martha's blog some weeks ago.

If you take the photographs at face value, then the dinners do indeed look dismal. The pictures show small portions, with little of nutritional value.

On one, for instance, there are three slices of cucumber, a little burger in a bun, a pair of croquettes and an ice lolly.

And this has clearly continued. Jamie Oliver has added his support. And lo and behold, when the media started noticing, they paid Martha for the right to use her pictures (not the Daily Mail, obviously).

Martha didn't keep the money, but gave it to a charity that provides school meals for children in Malawi, and because the blog had gone viral, other people donated to that too. Which is all very nice.

And then cue a headline in the Daily Record saying it was "Time to fire the dinnerladies".

Now, apparently, this was all meant to be bit light-hearted, to accompany a picture spread featuring Martha cooking a meal with top chef Nick Nairn, at an event he'd organised after seeing the blog.

The council, however, says that the dinnerladies themselves were upset by it and, indeed, frightened for their jobs. So it decided that Martha should not be allowed to keep on photographing her school meals any more.

The blog reports this. Social media goes into an overdrive of the highest dudgeon possible.

Amid cries about the nasty council censoring a child, about it staunching youthful creativity, about the appalling school dinners, the council leader lifts the ban.

So, where does that leave us?

It was Descartes who injuncted us to "doubt everything".

It seems to me that a healthy dose of exactly that is what is needed in this case.

Argyll and Bute have had what can only be described as an absolute PR disaster. It's difficult to imagine that they could have managed things worse.

But let's consider a number of things.

According to various people, Martha's school does not just serve the foods that she has pictured. There are choices available to the children - and there is always salad and fruit.

This is apparently a Scotland-wide approach. Indeed, one poster on the BBC online report of the story says that they were a schools meals supervisor and, on the basis of that nationwide policy, this sort of meal would absolutely not have been all that was on offer.

So, either this is also true at Lochgilphead Primary School, where Martha is a pupil, or it's not. If it's not, then what is the true situation? Has the school been ignoring its obligations and serving only what one pupil has pictured?

Or have Martha's pictures only shown a portion of what is available to the children? Is the school telling lies - or do the pictures only show part of the story?

Next up - why on earth didn't the Daily Record, and others, think to ask such a basic question? That might mean a bit of proper journalism and a proper article, of course, but you could be forgiven for thinking that that was what they're there for.

Perhaps Lord Leveson could have a word?

The paper was out of order in its headline. If there are problems at the school, in terms of the choice of food that is prepared and served, then it's unlikely to be the responsibility of the staff on the lowest rung of the decision-making ladder.

It's all well and good thinking you've come up with a great pun - and you really wouldn't want to know about some of the ones I came up with for headlines in my days as a sports hackette - but you can't effectively create a different story for the sake of such a headline.

If the dinnerladies really did feel that their jobs were under threat, then, assuming they're directly employed, it's only the council that can fire them. Is the council swinging the axe and leaving many of its employees in fear? Do they fear being privatised, with the possible attacks on their terms and conditions?

And then there's the blog itself. One of the other claims that has been made is that the only parents to complain about school lunches at Lochgilphead are Martha's parents. Is this true? If so, why have they complained? What is the nature of those complaints? What is the history of those complaints?

Are other parents satisfied? If so, why? If not, why not – and why haven't they complained too? The school itself, incidentally, apparently had no problem with the blog.

It seems that, amid the mess that this case has become, the only thing that is clear is that we do not know the full story.

Indeed, let me take this a tiny bit further.

Earlier, I posted a couple of sentences from the blog. Here they are again: "I'm a growing kid and I need to concentrate all afternoon and I can't do it on one croquette. Do any of you think you could?"

Now I'm no expert, but to me, that does not sound like the voice of a nine-year old child. Does a child of that age really, entirely off their own bat, raise the question of the amount of food required for concentration during the afternoon?

Was Martha really ever fed just one croquette to get her through an afternoon? (This goes back to whether the choice available at the school was as represented in the photograph – or involved more) If not, does a child of that age really then exaggerate down in such a fashion to make such a point?

Whatever the reality is, there is more going on in this case that meets the eye - and certainly more than some people seem to have considered.

And before anyone suggests otherwise, I am not, for a minute, suggesting that Martha has done anything wrong.

But let's be clear: journalists need to ask questions and newspapers have a responsibility not to publish uninformed crap. Or they should have. Just as much as councils should try to avoid utter panic when faced with something popular in social media.

The whole sorry story does raise other, wider questions. What is the obsession with giving children masses of choice for the school lunch - particularly if at least some of what is on offer is piss poor?

To do a spot of harking back for a mo: when I was at school, we didn't have a choice. We were served plain food, freshly cooked. We ate it. And we survived.

Look across the Channel. The French do not consider school meals, in general, as something to simply serve to poor children.

These days at least, they see them as playing an important role in educating all children about eating well. They don't offer choices. Schools offer a multi-course meal where children sit down properly and are expected to eat properly - often without making much noise at all.

They teach their children to take food seriously. Remember - the French do not have the obesity crisis among young people that we do.

Perhaps there lies part of the problem in the UK: so obsessed have we become with everyone being 'consumers' and 'customers' that we are educating children to be that. And perhaps we feel that, to facilitate that, we have to offer them 'choice' - even when that 'choice' involves patently rubbish options.

Perhaps the problem that Martha's parents have is this - that by giving their daughter choices, the school creates a situation where she makes what they consider to be poor choices.

Perhaps. Perhaps not.

So, to conclude: there are lots of questions, but very few answers. Cackhanded panic from the council, unprofessional, irresponsible headlines from the Daily Record and hysteria online.

And old Descartes had a damned good point.

Saturday, 16 June 2012

A traitor to ... something or other

A few days ago, it was brought to my attention that I am a ‘traitor’. No, seriously. The Other Half pointed this out to me.

The news came in an article in the usually rather decent Huffington Post, by one Julie Bindel, whose fulminations on sexual politics also appear in the Guardian.

It seems that, earlier this week, she was railing against bisexual women – we’re the traitors, doncha know.

Now, normally, I’d ignore such things – why give the perpetrators of nonsense any more publicity? – but unfortunately, Bindel and her ilk get to spend an extraordinary amount of time on supposedly high-quality platforms spouting their nonsense.

Indeed, in some cases – and Bindel is herself particularly guilty of this – what they spout is straightforward hatred. Bindel is a misandrist, yet the dear old Guardian continues to give her space to pour out her bile.

One can only imagine that editor Alan Rusbridger is convinced that this is … well, what? Some sort of penance for the ‘crimes’ of men against women? Evidence that he’s ‘right on’ when it comes to sexual politics? Proof of the Guardian's liberality?

I look forward to Rusbridger testing this out with a comparable piece that, for instance, suggests that all Muslims are terrorists – or even potential terrorists.

Bindel and her ilk don’t limit their hatred to men. They’re far more generous, applying a matronising attitude to any woman who dares to disagree with them.

Yet what makes this even more irritating is that so much of what they state as fact lacks anything even remotely approaching intellectual rigour.

Not only do these people have absolutely no democratic mandate – and therefore no accountability – they make the most extraordinary assertions.

You could end up thinking, to read or listen to them, that feminism was something that had a specific set of agreed truths; a central, core philosophy.

It doesn’t. It never has had. There is no ‘set text’, no ‘holy book’ of feminism.

That, of course, is why Bindel and co have to be so damning of any other woman, in particular, who has different views to theirs.

And, of course, their need to continue earning a crust.

But it seems that some people are enormously ready to believe things that have no basis in historical fact.

For instance, both Angela Carter and Susan Sontag (for whom I have a great deal of time, as it happens) talk of the “subversion” of male-female relations as though this were an undisputed, proven fact.

But look at the word. To subvert something is a quite deliberate and specific act.

Now I’m no expert, but I can find no evidence anywhere of this happening in the history of male-female relations and, when I have asked other women, none of them have ever been able to come up with such evidence.

So when were such relations subverted? By whom? How? What were the said relations like before this specific act?

Nobody is saying that women do not face particular problems as a result of their sex. Indeed, at present, far more women in the UK are suffering from the government’s austerity policies than are men (and far more young people in general are also suffering unemployment than older people – and so forth).

In the West in general – and certainly in the UK at present – I would suggest that the biggest issues that women face are economic or are directly related to economic questions and policies.

Of course, tackling such things requires real, grass roots political activity. And somehow, I very much doubt that the likes of Bindel would want to get their hands dirty in such a way. Besides, grass roots politics is frequently boring and depressing and almost always downright hard work.

It’s far easier to sit and pen a few rants. And besides, it helps avoid the possibility that, if you actually met more women outside of the ivory tower, they wouldn’t all agree with your somewhat prescriptive approach to how they should behave.

The Huff Post piece is, by the author’s standards, mild in its condemnation of this particular set of people that she doesn’t approve of. But it also highlights another point.

The Bindels of this world love to tell others what they can and cannot do; who they can and cannot have sex with, for instance: I have even seen hectoring posts (on Guardian online) from women telling other women what specific acts they should and should not engage in when having sex.

Conservatives might claim to be in favour of a small state – but many still want the state to be big enough that is has a say in what consenting adults can and cannot do in the privacy of their own homes.

Now if I tell some right-wing fundamentalist to fuck right off out of my sex life – why should some feminist think that they can do the same, without precisely the same riposte?

The reality is that there are a number of fundamentalisms – and far too many fundamentalists. And however different their fundamentalisms might appear to be, they’re cut from remarkably similar cloth.

Indeed, only a few weeks ago, organisers of something called ‘RadFem2012’ announced that members could only be “women born women and living as women”, in a move that barred transgender women.

At least one of the speakers at the conference – Sheila Jeffreys – has previously written about how trans surgery should be banned, and called for transsexualism itself to be called a ‘human rights violation’. (More here).

The likes of the Vatican and US Christian fundamentalists would just lap this up, wouldn’t they?

And if that is the case, then shouldn’t anyone who claims to be a progressive or a liberal find a bloody big alarm going off in their heads?

In the US, Andrea Dworkin and Catherine MacKinnon were so utterly determined that Porn Is The Most Bad Thing In The Whole Wide World, that they ended up in metaphorical bed with the Christian right, who probably cheered when they managed to get a porn ban in Canada – a ban that included lesbian magazines and literature.

Now there are a wide, wide variety of opinions on the subject. And there is no dividing line between women’s opinions on the subject and those of men. And there is no gospel.

Yet you still see utterly crass comments published claiming that ‘all porn is misogynist’. What – even the gay or the lesbian porn?

But surely the people spouting this sort of thing are a tiny minority?

Well yes – but given the space they get in the likes of the Guardian and now the Huff Post, their views are being given credibility and prominence that is out of proportion to their numbers.

And it’s also worth reiterating that they have no democratic mandate – and no accountability.

Yet you could make a case that such extremism has influences in some quite high places – in government policy, for instance. There were certainly signs of it in some of the rhetoric of the last government.

And listening to some of the hyperbolic rhetoric coming from those opposed to gay marriage, it’s difficult not to see the parallels with these ‘radical feminists’ again.

So, why am I a ‘traitor’? Well, apparently, it’s because I am what I am – but because I don’t then choose to use my sexuality to make a political statement by pretending to be something that I am not.

God, this is as passé as berating women for wearing lippy and claiming they only do it because men make them (which effectively also says that women are just downright stupid and gullible and don't have minds of their own – except when they're you).

And these people want to be treated as some sort of philosophical/intellectual giants, their every word followed to the letter? They expect respect?

My own philosophy on the matter in general is really quite simple. Consenting adults should be left alone to do as they please.

Everyone should be equal before the law and in terms of education and health care and – well, you get the point. But that’s equal – not an inversion of what some perceive to be the status quo.

And, whether some women might approve of the decisions and subsequent actions of other women or not, the central tenet of feminism is surely to give women the freedom and the opportunity to make and act on their own decisions.

Anything else becomes exactly what those doing the disapproving claim they are opposed to. A matriarchy is no better than a patriarchy.

Feminism should be enabling. To proscribe and prescribe is simply to be disabling and, indeed, to show a deep distrust in (and arguably dislike of) those whom one purports to liberate.

The last pope – John Paul II – is credited with helping to end the Cold War and defeat Soviet communism. Years later, visiting his native Poland, he berated crowds on the basis that he hadn't liberated them just so that they could go and have abortions.

Fundamentalism is always dangerous. It is always reactionary. It always involves bigotry. It is always, ultimately, anti-democratic and anti-freedom and anti-choice. And it is always divisive.

And that doesn't change when such ideas are published in supposedly liberal publications.

Friday, 15 June 2012

Let the fighting begin

It took less than a week for Euro 2012 to be marred by scenes of fans fighting.

Amazingly, they weren’t English. In this case, they were Polish and Russian, who seem to have a number of fans hellbent on competing for the title of biggest yobs of the tournament.

We’d already had more than one incident of Poles directing monkey chants at black players, while stewards had been attacked by Russians.

So it was probably only a matter of time until they decided to have a little go at each other.

What a change it made!

To be fair, it’s not England fans at the matches who tend to go in for thuggish behaviour, but usually people some considerable way a way from the actual football action.

The last occasion I remember when that was not the case was in 1995, at Lansdowne Road in Ireland, when a friendly between the Republic and England was targeted by the neo-Nazi Combat 18, in conjunction with the Chelsea Headhunters.

In that case, they didn’t care who they injured – England fans were hurt as well as Irish (an innocent English fan was speared by flying wood; an elderly Irishman died of a heart attack) – and ‘calling cards’ were left to make it quite clear as to the political nature of the riot.

It was hardly surprising, then that before Euro ’96, there were fears of violence at matches – in particular, rumours were doing the rounds of far-right thugs intending to start a scrap at Villa Park, during the Scotland-Netherlands clash.

That turned out to be a boring match – but wonderfully good-humoured. As, indeed, was every match I attended – 13 of the 31.

The atmosphere at Wembley was generally good – when England beat the Netherlands 4-1 (a shock result) it was like a big party, with the soundtrack song of that summer, Three Lions on a Shirt, being sing gustily for ages afterwards.

Travelling up and down the country to matches, it was a delight to see how English football fans, attending matches involving teams other than their own, acted as super hosts to our guests in the country.

When trouble did start, it was miles away from the actual football: in Trafalgar Square, as England went out on penalties to Germany in the semi-final.

Mind, the imbeciles in question didn’t even wait for the final result before starting a fight – which probably tells you something of their real motivation.

And then there was the murder of a Russian student miles away from London, with police saying they thought he’d been targeted by someone ‘thinking’ he was German.

When Churchill talked of ‘fighting them on the beaches’, he probably wasn’t thinking of a bunch of boozed-up idiots smashing up a holiday resort in Portugal during the 2004 tournament.

And some of the incidents that happened back in England itself were even worse, with a Portuguese community centre being targeted while it was full of women and children.

But the overwhelming majority of fans don’t behave in anything like such a way. And the same goes for other countries where there have been histories of football-related violence. England is most certainly not alone.

When violence does break out, though, there seem to be – at the very simplest level – two basic types.

• The ‘I fighting’ brigade, sometimes fueled by beer and provided with the ‘excuse’ by the tribalism of football.

• The nationalists and right-wing extremists who see it as war by another means to prove their and their country’s innate superiority.

Obviously, there’s a bit of overlapping goes on.

And to clarify: I’m not talking about patriotism – love of one’s country – but a belief that one’s country (and therefore oneself) are inherently better than anyone else.

Funnily enough, deputy prime minister and Lib Dem leader Nick Clegg was on the subject of extremism recently, pleading with European electorates not to do anything ‘silly’, by voting in extremists.

Well, Nicky boy, politicians like you who help to drive people to extremes. How is austerity affecting you and yours – felt the impact of rising bus fares yet?

The solution to the latter is largely political.

The solution to the former, however, is different.

Now in the case of Britain, we’ve been a boozy, brawling bunch for centuries – even the women. No matter what some commentators pretend, it’s not new.

When the Channel 4 programme, Time Team, did an excavation of a Blitz-hit area near where I live, they found knuckle dusters and goodness knows what else in the buried remains of old houses.

Read some Dickens. Look at some Hogarth. Even Virginia Woolf, in the 1920s novel, Mrs Dalloway, describes a character passing a pub on Tottenham Court Road where there are drunken women brawling outside.

Generally speaking, if people voluntarily want to beat seven shades of shit out of each other, then why not let them? Well, certainly if they’re legally adults.

The problem is if innocent people get caught up in it. And there’s also the small matter of who picks up the pieces.

In terms of the former, it’s easier now that most fighting doesn’t occur anywhere near actual stadiums. But if it does, it can be difficult to get out of the way.

The nearest I’ve come to getting caught up in anything – and indeed even seeing anything, in over 30 years of going to football from non-league level to the Euro ’96 final – was at Manchester City a couple of years ago, when the visitors were Birmingham, and the Birmingham Zulus decided to celebrate their 25th anniversary by starting a riot.

It spilled right out into the carpark and onto the main road, where I found myself skirting a line of police with batons and dogs.

Now I wasn’t scared, but I saw and heard people who were, including elderly women and small children. Football is not just for men – or even just for the few men who actually fancy a fight.

And in the north of England particularly, women have followed the game for a long time, just as they have with Rugby League.

Of course, in terms of the latter point, then given the current privatisation of so much of the public services that do most of the picking up the pieces, it’ll be more profit for private companies.

Except where, as in the case of the NHS, such services haven’t been cherry-picked by the private healthcare providers.

As only a slight aside: we fill people up with crap food and drink, stuffed with chemicals, and wonder that they get a bit aggressive. Why?

Given that it’s generally accepted that children’s behaviour can be negatively impacted by chemicals in food – preservatives etc. Given the amount of chemicals in much of the beer (and ‘fast food’) consumed here, why on earth are we surprised at levels of anti-social behaviour in town centres at the weekends in particular?

Mind, it doesn’t just need bad beer and crap food. As proven by my own reaction to arrogant, fuckwitted cyclists on the damned pavements. I need neither cheap beer nor crap food to want to smash up their shitty bikes.

So perhaps we could have little corrals outside football stadia or in town centres for those who want to fight to be able to do so? Participants could sign disclaimers first – and prove that they have additional insurance to cover any health care required.

While we’re at it, we could also have some standing areas in stadia for those who want to stand – done properly, it is safe, as shown in the German Bundesliga, for instance.

But back to the brawling. At least until England go out of the current tournament on penalties in the quarter finals, doesn’t it make a nice change to be able to finger point at naughty people from other nations?