Tuesday, 30 July 2013

Won't somebody think of the children!

Dangerous to innocent minds?
Many years ago, on a family holiday in Cornwall – at Polzeath, where you can actually ride the surf on a body board – days on the long, golden sands were punctuated by parental observations about a man who always seemed to be near us on the beach.

He was middle aged and, if memory serves correctly, he was with his own family. What made him worthy of repeated comment was his choice of swimwear.

Because he was sporting very brief briefs.

I can’t remember who started the comments, but I suspect it was my mother. The briefs were a problem precisely because they were brief.

Memory conjures up my mother suggesting, in all seriousness, that my father should report him to somebody – even the police. For wearing the sort of briefs that you’d probably have seen on Mark Spitz in the pool.

This would, indeed, have probably been around the time of Spitz’s great triumph at the 1972 Olympics, or maybe a year or so later at most.

Given the paucity of evidence on the matter and the notorious unreliability of memory, I can only conclude that my parents, and my mother in particular, considered such attire too ‘revealing’ for a family beach.

But there is a moral to the story. Quite simply, the only reason that I remember the incident at all is because of parental outrage.

I didn’t go around, at the time, staring at men’s crotches and lewdly contemplating the degree of bulge contained by tight bathing briefs or tight jeans.

It is entirely likely that I would not only not have remembered the incident, but would not even have noticed the man himself in the first place had it not been pointed out with such prudish indignation.

It was my mother who looked and saw, not a man in bathing briefs, but, in effect, sex.

But then again, this was a parent who insisted that one of her daughters should not be allowed to bathe for most of a holiday because she was having a period and could not possibly be allowed to use tampons (it’s fairly obvious why those were considered verboten).

Of course, it’s quite amusing now to consider the belief that a simple bulge, even covered by the tightest of clothing, has the capacity to corrupt and deprave.

Does it work the same for boobs or is it just man bits?

Or would that largely depend on the sex of the children that one believed were likely to be corrupted, in combination with a belief that they were – obviously – heterosexual?

Actually, when I first saw ‘man bits’ – not in the flesh but in a picture in a magazine that was found in a train carriage on a school trip – I was both shocked and fascinated.

It wasn’t as though I was going to find out what they looked like in pretty much any other way.

But after that, the fascinated bit meant that I went looking: there was a large newsagent that I passed on the way home from school in the evenings, and it had magazines aimed at women – Playgirl, I assume. I’d browse them surreptitiously, until the day I was spotted and harangued by a member of staff, and never went in again in a state of massive guilt.

A few years later, doing ‘voluntary’ service at the local psycho-geriatric hospital, I spent lunchtimes dragging a petition against porn around for people to sign.

I cannot for the life of me remember precisely what had set off this particular outburst of prudery, but I do remember being told off by one of the senior doctors, who asked me whether I’d really ever seen porn (deep embarrassment and a mumbled ‘yes’ and then the story of the magazine on the train and how shocking it was) and why did I think it was so bad (more red-faced mumblings).

In retrospect, it was probably the case that he’d quite quickly been able to diagnose me as being well on the way to becoming a very screwed-up and conflicted individual where sex was concerned.

If my most intense religiosity had faded by that point in my life, it had not died. It was just a few years after being carted along to service after service of a two-week evangelical ‘crusade’ in Thameside had produced the intended and pretty much inevitable result, given such sustained emotional overload (blackmail).

It would also not have been long, one way of the other, from a trip, made with bus-loads of my father’s parishoners, to the Blackpool Winter Gardens to hear Billy Graham preach in person.

It was also only a short time before I had a wildly kinky dream that actually produced an orgasm as I woke, and left me in a state of deep shock and confusion for some considerable days – the sort of experience that I could tell nobody about because of the abiding conviction that sex was a synonym for sin.

It was only a year or so later that I discovered, from a book, that puberty doesn’t just change you physically. Later, I challenged my parents over it, but they found it impossible to believe that they hadn’t given me all the information that I needed.

When I told them that I had felt ‘unclean’, like a leper, they merely responded that I could always have talked to them about it. Perceptions, eh?

When, eventually, my parents moved away from the area, I decided to stay and try to carve out my own life there.

On my first night alone, I slunk into a local ‘private shop’ and bought a magazine.

Guilt and fascination and sexual need make a damned unholy alliance, believe me.

But I’m not just penning this for the sake of idle nostalgia. It has a real and entirely serious point.

How much of the current mantra about the ‘sexualisation’ of young people is actually in the minds of those who worry about it, just as the fear that somehow my sister and I would be corrupted by a man in skimpy bathing shorts was entirely in the minds of my parents?

There are issues, I think, with the increased commoditisation of everything, and that includes our bodies, but this is not what those involved in campaigning on the issue are on about.

How much does all this moral panic actually make young people more aware than they might otherwise be? And then, of course, make porn even more taboo and even more ‘sexy’?

How much damage does the absence of proper sex education in the UK cause? And it is worth specifically mentioning faith schools, where not only are lessons unlikely to provide genuine information, but where other lessons are also more likely to create problems, while the parents of pupils at such schools are also probably less likely to offer open and clear and non-judgmental messages on sex and sexuality.

Blaming pornography is simply one more excuse for the ridiculous degree of frankly dangerous prudery in this country; for a general squeamishness about discussing sex properly and openly with young people; for an unhealthy overregard for religious sensibilities and a concomitant disregard for the health and wellbeing of young people themselves.

Elements of what passes for a ‘debate’ are even still couched in terms of ‘innocence’, as though sexual knowledge ends that – as though, indeed, children are ever non-sexual beings.

An infant may not be able to orgasm or get an erection, but they will play with their genitals precisely because it is pleasant. Attitudes of guilt and fear, convictions about sex being dirty – these things are foisted on them by adults, not by pornographic images.

I got over the conflicts and the guilt; eventually – a good two decades plus after being shaken by that dream.

My therapy – self-prescribed and administered – included writing the filthiest stories I could (it was an added bonus when they got picked up by a publisher and, as a friend put it, I got paid for my wet dreams).

I looked at porn too – what a delightful revelation and boost to the self-esteem it was to discover that there were men out there (and other women) who actually liked the more Rubenesque figure.

Because that’s not something that mainstream culture suggests at all. Quite the opposite: mainstream, non-porn culture is more interested in feeding your insecurities and thus enrolling you in the sort of lifelong self-hatred that has you spending money on diets and gyms and all manner of ‘cures’ in the hope that, one day, you’ll be able to start actually living a life that you dream of.

Nor is it just aimed at women and girls, but increasingly at men and boys, as businesses look for and create new markets.

But wouldn’t it be nice if we actually had a world where the chances of the sort of screwed-upness that I experienced were reduced?

Well, don’t make the mistake of imagining that getting rid of porn is the way to do it. Because it jolly well isn’t.

Monday, 29 July 2013

Beware the propaganda you pay heed to

Bogart with fag: filtered or not?
A few days ago, with an hour to while away at lunchtime, I pottered along to the British Library to see its current exhibition on Propaganda: power and persuasion.

Although the subject is hardly new, the exhibition itself is described as ‘groundbreaking’.

On that note, I was at a bit of a loss to understand why. That’s not to say that some of the exhibits are not fascinating – a 16th-century book of anti-papal cartoons, for instance, which is used to illustrate the importance of the printing press to the spreading of propaganda – but it hardly felt revelatory.

The exhibition included recorded interviews with various people, including, for instance, Alistair Campbell, the former spin doctor to Tony Blair, while various exhibits bring the subject bang up to date by examining how social media is being used in the cause of propaganda.

There were materials from both sides in the first and second world wars, materials relating to colonialism and liberation struggles, to domestic politics and also to the sort of health and public information messages that we perhaps forget are also propaganda.

Perhaps it all felt a little staid because of the times we’re living in.

After all, this is the government that has looked as though Armando Iannucci’s The Thick of It has been its working script for governance.

And that’s before we mention Iain Duncan Smith’s repeat offence of being ‘economical with the truth’ about welfare stats.

Or David Cameron’s “there will be no more top-down reorganisations of the NHS”.

They could give Goebbels lessons.

Mind, as we’re also seeing, a complicit, conniving media is a big help.

In much the same way, as the issue of pornography has hit the headlines, the propaganda machine has been beavering away to sell the idea of internet service providers (ISPs) putting anti-porn filters on any contract.

You’ll have to opt in to ‘adult material’, not opt out.

But as I asked the other day: “One of the concerns about this announcement is whether it softens people up for further censorship. Do we trust government on the issue?”

Well, I didn’t then and the reasons are becoming increasingly apparent – whatever personal feelings are on the issue of pornography itself.

Because it seems that porn is far from the only thing that the government wants ISPs to block.

It seems that users may also find that they have to actively opt out of blocks on a variety of things from ‘violent material’ to ‘suicide-related websites’ to ‘alcohol’ to ‘smoking’.

Now it’s hard to know how this would work – whether a search for Alcholics Anonymous, for instance, would be barred if you hadn’t opted out of the relevant one. But that’s far from the only issue.

Many of the currently listed topics to be ‘filtered’ could easily play well with the population – ‘extremist’ materials, for instance.

But who finds those by accident anyway?

What should alert people rather more to the real agenda here is seeing ‘web forums’ listed – why? – together with the extraordinarily-labeled ‘esoteric material’, which, one suspects, could be applied to mean whatever someone wanted it to mean.

After all, since ‘esoteric’ means, in essence, ‘only understood by the initiated’, that could be applied to anything.

This blog, for instance. Trade unions. Religious groups. Take your pick.

Or, more to the point, whatever is the pick of whomsoever is in charge of defining these things at the time – fuller story here.

There’s a simple lesson to be learned here – hopefully before it’s too late: beware the propaganda that you allow yourself to believe.

Friday, 26 July 2013

Porn is a class issue

Oh look – the anti-porn Mail
On Monday, in a blaze of glory, the Daily Mail declared victory in the war on internet porn - and the internet itself died from the irony overload.

Few will have missed the news that prime minister David Cameron has decided that online smut is 'corroding' our children's lives and that search engines and ISPs Must Do More to stop the nasty stuff.

First, let's be clear about a few things. There is no such thing as 'child porn'. There are images of child abuse. Porn requires consent.

There are also already laws in place to deal with images of acts that are themselves illegal - including the abuse of children.

The idea that you find porn everywhere online is nonsense. I have all filters off on my computer and I use search engines regularly. I do not come across pornographic material on a regular basis, by accident, while searching for completely non-porn matters.

And anyone looking online for images of child abuse is highly unlikely to do so via Google. It would be a pretty surefire way to earn a visit from the local constabulary in short order.

The internet though, has layers that are far deeper and more hidden than anything that a search engine can come up with. These layers are where those who want pictures of illegal activities will go and will look and will exchange what they want.

So in other words, the prime minister's performance was meaningless, soundbite rhetoric.

The Mail, of course, loved it. Why wouldn't it? After all, such rhetoric plays to a particular constituency, many of whom doubtless view the internet and porn as evil incarnate to start with, and plenty of whom appear to understand nothing about, say, those deeper levels - let alone other tech stuff that people like me find too complex.

A short time ago, the paper got into a bit of a fix when columnist Amanda Platell revealed in a sensationalist article that she'd searched for dodgy terms and, oh goodness, found Awful Things. The police got involved, because her searching for images of child abuse was, itself, illegal. There are very strict rules for any serious investigative journalist to follow.

And then it materialised that what she'd found was content that involved not a single minor. All involved were over 18

But that was not what sent the irony meter into overload.

That was because the Mail itself does a nice little line in online pictures of underage girls accompanied by text that quite deliberately sexualises them. I'm not going into this in detail here, because I've done so before, so as evidence, see here and here.

It is that it is not an accident or an error. It is quite deliberate.

Beyond that, the online version of the story had, as a sidebar, the usual Mail Online content of various stories of women in bikinis, more women with little on, women with very little on, commentary about what they were/weren't wearing, commentary about their bodies - and so forth.

The divine Geoffrey Rush as The Divine Marquis in Quills
It's useful at this point to remember that the Mail's print editor, Paul Dacre, is also the editor in chief of the entire Mail family, so what goes on the web site is every bit as much his ultimate editorial responsibility as what goes in the pages of the daily paper.

So the deliberately sexualised tone of reports on underage girls occur on exactly the same watch as the campaigns against internet porn and the sexualisation of children.

To put it simply, Dacre and the Mail are steaming piles of hypocritical shit.

But now let's examine some of the issues surrounding Cameron's announcement.

And to start with, a very brief introduction to the subject as a whole may be useful.

Pornography comes from a Greek word, basically meaning 'the writings of prostitutes'.

Until the second half of the 19th century, it had no moral connotation - we can see this in how dictionary definitions changed over the second half of the century.

Many paintings of classical subjects deal with themes that could now become illegal - the Rape of the Sabine Women by Rubens, for instance.

Art had represented the erotic for centuries - much Christian art is highly erotic, and, in some cases, homoerotic, as described in Closet Devotions by Richard Rambuss.

For goodness sake, look at almost any representation of the matryrdom of St Sebastian, as he gazes feyly at the sky, apparently oblivious to the arrows piercing his body, and seriously claim that this does not have an erotic aspect to it.

But then, isn't religion itself erotic too? Research has suggested that the chemicals released during prayer and meditation are pretty much the same ones released during orgasm.

It gives a whole new meaning to the idea of divine bliss.

But the point remains that these were pictures that were not intended for the hoi polloi, but only for those who could afford to have such art created or who were fortunate to live or work in institutions where such art was displayed.

What we see now with the prime minister's pronouncements is not far removed from current ideas that the poor shouldn't have tobacco or booze or TV - or computers, even though they'll need those to claim benefits and look for work.

The Rape of the Sabine Women by Rubens
It's reminiscent of the infamous pleading by the prosecution in the Lady Chatterley obscenity trial: "Would you approve of your young sons, young daughters - because girls can read as well as boys - reading this book? Is it a book that you would have lying around in your own house? Is it a book that you would even wish your wife or your servants to read?"

For the well off, there will still be 'erotica' - which is merely a hypocritical name for porn. After all, both set out to arouse the viewer/reader, so what's the difference really?

So what changed that definition of pornography?

In essence, photographic technology, which when it emerged meant that the man in the street could afford to buy a smutty postcard.

The problem, in other words, was based on class.

Indeed, let's go further.

As a result of archeology in the 19th century, many artifacts were uncovered from the ancient world that were, in the Victorian one, considered depraved.

Some were destroyed. Some were placed in a number of 'secret museums' around Europe. These were places where only men of a certain standing and character could apply to see them.

Women, children and the lower classes were all far too fragile and corruptible to ever be allowed access to such works.

Go further: to demonise those that work in pornography - and the wider sex industry - is to demonise working people. And to see some on the left doing this is particularly disappointing, never mind when they fall into hate rhetoric and call for such workers to be 'put up against the wall and shot, come the revolution', as the likes of ├╝ber-rabblerouser Julie Birchill has.

What is the difference between that and anti-semitism or racism or straightforward, old-fashioned sexism?

Besides, it totally ignores the simple fact that, as women have had more disposable income, some have chosen to buy sexual services, and as women's liberation continues, some have also chosen to become pornographers themselves: Fifty Shades of Grey might not be Nobel-winning literature, but it is written by a woman and has been consumed voraciously by women. And pretending that this is not the case is simply infantile.

But let's got further yet: if people really believe that porn is dreadful (and they also tend to believe that the entire sex industry is dreadful too), and that no woman would ever do these thing voluntarily, then don't campaign to cut porn - campaign for improvements to pay that keeps women in particular in poverty or close to it.

And then, when that serious political-economic battle is won, if there are no longer any women going into the sex industry, clearly it will have been shown to be because of the tyranny of low pay etc.

But equally, if there are still women going into the sex industry afterwards, you'll have to accept it as a matter of free choice.

Did you realise that porn was such a class and equalities issue?

In case anyone wonders, I'm well aware that men also work in the sex industry, but these debates rather tend to exclude them, just as they 'forget' lesbian porn.

Anyhow, let's move on.

Is porn really the end of civilisation as we know it?

No. It's really not.

Is it evidence of a lack of respect toward women?

No, it's not.

Look at countries that ban porn - like Dubai or Saudi Arabia - and ask yourself how they treat women. With more respect than, say, the famously open Netherlands?

Nobody has to like porn. That's not the point. But porn is also not the great evil that it is made out to be by some.

After decades of research to quite specifically prove a link between viewing porn and becoming violent, no such link has been proved, as I mentioned here.

Equally, some research has suggested that serial sex offenders often grew up in homes where they were denied any sexual outlet - including porn.

There are complaints about young people getting their sex education from porn.

Given the chronically piss poor nature of UK sex education, that should hardly come as a surprise to anyone, and the solution isn't banning porn, but improving sex education for every single child.

Proper sex education should not be an option: no parent should be able to opt a child out of it.

That's part of the problem: the UK has, in general, more respect for the rights of prudes and religious fundamentalists than it does for the emotional, mental, physical and sexual health of young people.

Experience in the US has illustrated that abstinence education actually worsens the situation of teenage pregnancies and STIs.

And that, of course, is without even mentioning the point that there are plenty of non-religious homes where sex is not discussed for a whole variety of reasons from embarrassment to a lack of interest.

Some years ago, a survey by various children's charities found that the group of young people that started sexually experimenting with others at the latest age was the group where sex was discussed openly and without 'moral' judgment at home.

This was also the group most likely to know about and use safe sex and contraception.

Next up was the group whose parents held 'moral' and religious attitudes toward sex.

They started experimenting with others at an earlier age and were less likely to know about/use safe sex and contraception.

The third group were from homes where, in essence, the parents didn't give a toss. The age at which experimentation with others began was lower again, as was knowledge and use of safe sex and contraception.

It's rather obvious, really, but it emphasises the need for a real programme of mandatory sex education - and this needs to be far more than the birds and the bees.

I experienced the latter form of sex 'education'. My mother checked I knew about periods. And that was it.

Not a single word about what 'feelings' I might experience.

When my sister shopped me for drawing topless women, I got a lecture on how such things were inappropriate - except in an art gallery.

And then there were the sermons - both from my father's formal pulpit in church, and also the informal one, at the family dining table.

Sin, I understood early, was shorthand for sex.

Pan & the Goat. Only for respectable, upper-class gents
Producing children who are guilt-ridden about sex is not healthy.

But for some at least - and I am among those - pornography was eventually one of the things that helped me to liberate myself from all that negativity.

As I worked through things, turning my fantasies into stories acted as a form of therapy - hardly hindered when I got paid for it too.

And I know I'm not unique.

In particular, it happens for people who have 'alternate' sexualities.

Is that what people want to ban?

Do they also want to increase the issues that already exist with search engines treating terms such as 'breast cancer' and 'Scunthorpe' as verboten?

Cameron has also announced a ban on porn representations of rape. Will this include literary porn?

If not, why not? A cursory glance at history suggests that the written word has caused rather more wars than pictures of people shagging.

So will my collection of Sade be safe? Or does one only need to worry if they have a DVD or Pasolini's Salo? Where does it leave Quills, the mainstream movie starring the excellent Geoffrey Rush or Secretary, both of which are sympathetic to kinky people?

Here's another little bit of history: Sade actually spent the majority of his lengthy stays in prison because of what was considered blasphemy against the church.

Indeed, porn has been used as a tool of satire and political opposition more than once.

The Beate Uhse Erotik-Museum in Berlin has an excellent exhibition of just such works, including ones by George Grosz.

One of the concerns about this announcement is whether it softens people up for further censorship. Do we trust government on the issue?

I don't. Not least because successive governments, whatever they say in opposition, then get into power and start listening to GCHQ about what additional surveillance powers it wants, and previous policy statements go out of the window.

But back to this issue. What about The Accused or Last Exit to Brooklyn, both of which have very graphic and disturbing rape scenes?

In fact, and in many ways far more to the point, would any ban include all those Barbara Cartland books where the heroine is 'ravished'.

There is a vast amount of 'romantic fiction' out there that and, if one issue with porn is that it creates 'unrealistic expectations', then such fiction does precisely that.

Such stories feature not just in books, but also in magazines aimed at a wide variety of ages, from teenagers up.

Add to that romantic films, including but not limited to rom-coms.

Then there are the newspapers that, for instance, report sex matters as though monogamy is the only decent option, and all people are sexually identical and should conform to the same behaviour.

These are the mainstream; they are consumed by a very large number of people, and they create expectations and guilt. Why are such things not being targeted?

And as for violence in entertainment ...

Now, to clarify, I am not suggesting that such things are banned.

Of course, people also raise other objections to porn - or at least to that which requires performers. They will sometimes attempt to deny that porn can be written.

But that's another issue, where this entire attempt to ban porn is based on 'won't somebody think of the children!' (and the votes).

It's tempting to say that Cameron's announcement is cretinous - for the lack of technological nous it displays etc.

But I don't think it is. I don't think that that was ever what he and his advisors were remotely concerned about.

This is not even soundbite politics - this is dogwhistle politics.

The Daily Mail has whistled, and Cameron and his cohorts have come running, desperate for the master to them a pat on the head - particularly after upsetting Dacre and co with Leveson.

And that alone should warn any intelligent people against this entire shifty business.

Further suggested reading matter

Pornocopia by Laurence O' Toole

Pornography: The secret history of civilisation by Isabel Tang

The Marquis de Sade: A life by Neil Schaeffer

Porn blocking: a survivor's perspective – excellent blog article

Is the rape porn cultural harm argument – blog by lawyer Myles Jackman

Sunday, 21 July 2013

Go on, go on, go on ...

Attending a performance of The Cripple of Inishmaan on Friday was, in many ways, one of the odder evenings in the theatrical part of my life.

A brief background note is worth making here: after years of going to the theatre very regularly for reviewing purposes - sometimes three or even four times a week - I became a lapsed theatregoer.

It wasn’t deliberate, but happened – largely because of a lack of money and also because of a lack of being used to planning evenings out and actually booking tickets.

In recent years, we’ve made an effort to start going ... well, if not ‘regularly’, then at least a few times a year.

We had seen this third play in this inaugural Michael Grandage Company season listed and thought it looked interesting, but equally thought that, for reasons of it starring Daniel ‘Harry Potter’ Radcliffe, we’d not get near tickets for all the fan girls.

As it happened, we were wrong and, because I’m automatically on the company emailing list now, having previously seen both Privates on Parade and the absolutely wonderful Peter and Alice, I received an email a couple of weeks ago telling me that tickets were still available.

We snapped up a pair.

First, the audience did include a large number of girls. As we left, The Other Half even spotted several pf them heading to the stage door with roses in hand.

But what a great way to get people to go to the theatre.

Anyway, back to the play – or most pertinantly, a play that I had no prior knowledge of.

I imagined that it was quite old – it’s set in the 1930s – and on the surface, is full of Irish stereotypes. There were times I wondered whether I was watching The Quiet Man meets Father Ted.

Yet this is a play from 1997, by Martin McDonagh, who also wrote and directed the wonderful film, In Bruges. And in many ways, this gives you a platform from which to understand this play and help you get past a sense that you're seeing Maureen O'Hara meet Pauline McLynn.

The central idea is that a film crew from Hollywood arrives in a small Irish community that struggles against the elements, to film a documentary (based on fact).

The villagers react in differing ways, but ‘Cripple’ Billy, a 17-year-old orphan with a somewhat mysterious past, who’s only pastime is staring at cows, at once sees the falseness of the celluloid hopes, but also the chance to escape his mind-numbing existence.

What McDonagh has done is to create a very funny play that leaves you with a number of questions about the nature of home and expectations, the stories that we all tell and construct around ourselves (the stereotypes are a crucial part of this) and the importance of storytelling in human experience.

It is delightfully done, and the very fact of how you personally react to the stereotypes – do you recognise them as such, how then do you react to them etc – are important elements in the questions that the writer asks about how we all react to stories and how we all portray ourselves.

As to the cast – well, it’s an excellent ensemble performance.

But special mentions to Sarah Greene as Helen and Pat Shortt as Johnnypateenmike.

And then we come to young Master Radcliffe.

If one had any worries that one would be watching Harry Potter, they disappear the moment he arrives on stage.

This is a remarkably talented young actor – perhaps far more so than many might expect. The team decided that his Billy’s disability is cerebral palsy, and Radcliffe shows enormous physical discipline in maintaining his character’s condition.

Where McDonagh doesn’t opt for easy stereotype is in his writing of Billy – this is no disabled archetype (a welcome point in these Atos times), and Radcliffe’s understated but emotionally powerful performance is exemplary.

There are no sloppy excuses for genuine depth of character – and this is why, in very large part, the play works in spite of so many apparent stereotypes.

Radcliffe is a very bright young talent – and a joy to watch.

It is an excellent evening out – and one that, perhaps unexpectedly, leaves the audience with a tantalising series of questions to muse on later.

There is a brutality about the play, but also great warmth and, ultimately, real humanity, without it ever having plunged into mawkish sentimentality – see In Bruges.

So if you get the chance – well, go on, go on, go on: you know you want to.

And if you don't, watch out for this company, because one really hopes that will be more than a one-season wonder.

Saturday, 20 July 2013

Salt talk II

Lamb chops – and the final English asparagus of the year
After twigging, at the beginning of the week, that salt was such an important factor in continued health in this weather, the days since have seen an upturn in how I’ve been feeling.

Spirits are improved, temper even seems better – and the only differences are the salt but with similar water intake, plus almost no complex carbs.

There may be a lesson there too.

Food continues to be simple. The most complex it’s been this was that Moroccan chicken with the lemon and olives previously mentioned.

Tuesday offered up grilled lamb chops with peas and what will almost certainly prove to be the final asparagus of the season.

Wednesday evening brought salad with smoked mackerel – but not the sort of stuff that comes in plastic vacuum packs from the supermarket, frequently looking a rather odd colour.

No, this was from Vicki on Broadway Market and was a lovely fish that had been smoked whole.

The fillets lifted away easily and all that was required was a small amount of attention with the pin-boning pliers.

Smoked fish of that quality is simply the business.

What could it possibly need with it apart from a light, basic dressing – oil, vinegar and salt whisked together – and the odd slice of lemon?

And Thursday saw the griddle pan emerge from the cupboard again, this time to cook steaks, which it did quite beautifully, before they too were served with watercress and lamb’s lettuce, a little vinaigrette, a sprinkle of banyuls-impregnated fleur de sel and, for me, some redcurrant jelly.

None of this was remotely complex. But food doesn’t have to be complex for it to be good. And it doesn’t have to be a fiddle, to take hours and to make you anxious for it to be good either.

Simple smoked mackerel salad
But returning to supermarkets, what is the BBC up to? The central premise of a new series, Britain’s Favourite Supermarket Foods, seems to involve presenter Cherry Healey examining big-selling foodstuffs for their health properties.

Presumably, producers surmised that this challenge could only be undertaken by making supermarkets central to the equation. Perhaps they decided that this should be the case because so many people use them, even though this is largely because they have such a dominant hold over the UK grocery retail market.

If you have to tie it into specific types of shops, why not use small local stores instead? Why not explore local markets? After all, the supermarkets all have massive advertising budgets already. They don’t need added publicity from Auntie.

(Thanks to Dave for letting me know about this piece of programming)

Greg Wallace was also on our TV screens this week, with Eat Well for Less?, which revealed, after taste tests, that the public can tell the difference between properly-cooked fish and chips and the ready-made variety that comes out of the oven.

Most, however, seem unable to spot the difference between fresh and frozen broccoli.

It was an odd programme in some ways. I found myself wondering how fresh the fresh broccoli was: was it supermarket ‘fresh’ – in other words, had it been sent halfway around the country via one of the supermarkets’ hugely centralised transport systems?

If so, it might not taste as good as the frozen, which had been processed into that state very quickly after harvesting.

Steak, lamb's lettuce and watercress – and salt
As an aside, I have no great aversion to frozen vegetables per se, although I’m not sure if or when I’ve eaten frozen broccoli.

Finally, on a TV note, the second episode of Raymond Blanc’s new series, How to Cook Well, was on this week, and the programme will remain a highlight of the TV scheduling for the remainining four weeks.

Unlike other cookery series, this doesn’t show a selection of recipes, but groups dishes together in order to help the viewer understand specific techniques.

So for instance, the first episode was centred on slow cooking – on probably the least likely week of the year when you’d be wanting to slow-cook anything very much!

As usual with Blanc, it wasn’t just entertaining in his inimitable way, but also really informative.

My attempts, in recent years, to really explore slow cooking have not been failures, but I’m not all the way there yet.

There are, as I might have mentioned once or twice, a shortage of recipe books out there that really give serious times and temperatures for cooking something long and slow – for the purposes of this, I’m perhaps most particularly talking about meat cooked in wine or beer.

In the days of microwaves and ready meals, 40 minutes sounds like slow cooking.

I have gone up to around five hours in the last year, usually on 150˚C (fan).

The news from that first episode is that while my timing may not be far off, my oven may not be quite hot enough. Blanc himself was cooking a shin of beef for four and a half hours at 150˚C – not a fan oven – and it was not simply falling off the bone and could be ‘cut’ with a spoon, the connective tissue had also simply melted into edible condition.

Michel Roux has a calculation, that if you don’t have a fan oven, you need to add 15˚C to the temperature, so on that basis, I’ll be trying 160˚C – for the same sort of time or more – come the autumn.

Incidentally, the butcher that he got the meat for suggested six hours for the cook.

The recipes for the series, incidentally, are all available on Blanc’s own website.

And with poaching as this week’s subject, and roasting next Tuesday, even if we don’t feel like eating a great deal at present, Blanc is offering plenty of food for thought.