Friday, 27 June 2014

Time to see food and eat it in Brighton

My dining partner
Time spent working away from home can be a mixed blessing, but one of the pluses (sometimes) is that it means that you’re forced to eat out.

With last week having been spent in Brighton, there were four culinary experiences worth a mention.

Next to the hotel – the Hilton Metropole – is a fairly basic chippy. Nothing is cheap in Brighton, but it’s not bad and, after arriving and setting up camp on the Saturday, I headed there for a celebratory plate of scampi, chips and mushy peas.

Wandering around outside the large open restaurant was a seagull, on the scrounge for any fodder.

I threw a chip. It was wolfed down. I threw another. That went the same way.

Some minutes later, I was outside feeding it chips by hand, which put a wide grin on my face, even as passers-by were freaking out.

And no – it didn’t peck me, but took each chip carefully. The bloke inside was tickled pink and, on other visits during the week, would tell me that “your friend” had been back.

There followed a few days of very basic eating – mostly the same place, with steak and kidney pies substituting for the scampi on one or two occasions. By the standards of many such places, the pies – Pukka ones – were surprisingly, well, pukka. There was even actual kidney in them.

Tuesday saw my first serious diversion into a better culinary experience, with dinner with colleagues at Al Fresco, the thoroughly pleasant Italian restaurant that lives in the converted 1950s Milkmaid Pavillion that links the shore and the promenade.

To start with, I went for deep fried calamari with a smoked paprika aïoli.

It’s easy to view that as being simple in the extreme, but rarely in the UK have I had calamari so beautifully cooked – it was light as a feather, tender and as scrumptious as anything.

For a second course, it was ravioli of fresh langoustine and scallop, which was bound in a light fresh ginger, lemon
and mascarpone cream, and came garnished with a seared scallop and a grilled langoustine.

Naturally sweet, but with the ginger adding a very welcome zing, this was very pleasant indeed.

Having thus whetted the old appetite, Wednesday afternoon found me with the time to indulge in a serious lunch, and thus trying Riddle & Finns, a new restaurant housed in the arches on the seafront.

As I approached, the rain came down and diners seated outside plunged into the interior.
As a result, it was suddenly packed. Since time was no issue, I said that waiting would be no problem, and took up residence on a sofa, just inside.

Bread and paté
Given that I had to work again later, I declined the offer of a glass of wine and stuck with water. And I did half wonder whether they thought that this very casually-attired single woman was a serious diner for such an establishment – no, I really don’t need colcannon explaining to me.

But when it became clear that the rain had been but a shower and had departed, I took a table outside.

Having ordered a main, I was rather surprised to find a substantial basket of bread and butter, and pots of smoked mackerel paté, horseradish sauce and mayonnaise in front of me.

It was large even for an hors d’oeuvres. The waiter told me that, if I chose to eat it, then there was a cover charge of £1, but otherwise, no cost.

Now, I have to say that that is the first time I’ve ever been directly charged anything for hors d’oeuvres or an amuse bouche – and I’ve eaten at and written about some top-notch restaurants over the years – and it has a certain classlessness about it.

Lobster salad
That said, it was well worth a quid of anyone’s money. The paté was quite simply superb, while the bread was very good and the horseradish and mayo – both homemade – were also excellent.

My main was a salad of half a lobster, which came served, very elegantly, on a delightful bed of fresh, varied leaves, the bitterness of which contrasted superbly with the sweetness of the lobster meat.

It had small pieces of mango and pink grapefruit to give the dish a real lift – as well as added colour and texture – and proved to be a genuinely superior salad.

Riddle & Finns is not cheap, but when you are served such an excellent lunch, then no complaints are required.

By way of a contrast – of sorts – a lunchtime ramble along the seafront on Friday saw me finally find my way to Jack and Linda Mills’s Brighton smokery, which also resides under the arches of the promenade.

The smoke house
They smoke their own fish in a tiny black hut at the edge of the pebbled beach, and then sell it in pots or in bread.

Years ago, Rick Stein had visited and raved – I’d pledged to finally make it there myself.

They are an absolutely charming couple – and my little pot of mixed crab meat, served with fresh lemon, was lovely.

Wandering back to work along the promenade itself, I suddenly felt the urge to do something that would make it a really tradition British seaside lunch: buy an ice cream.

A little pot of crab
There I was, with a cone of the whippy, soft stuff that, in almost all other circumstance, I'd deride. But somehow, as you’re strolling down the prom, prom, prom, nothing could be more tiddely om pom pom.

Finally, just a brief note about the hotel: taking £300 out of my current account, at £50 a night, as a ‘guarantee’ against anything I might put on the room over the course of my stay, should more accurately be called ‘taking the piss’.

Fortunately, there was no sign of mould in my room, even if it was steamingly hot between mid morning to mid evening – an issue replicated in many of the rooms. The hotel management knows perfectly well about this – hence the fans sitting in most wardrobes.

Presumably they also know that opening the cupboard under the TV to find that there isn’t even a fridge – and at least some of the rooms that did have one don’t seem to have had one that worked – is also a tad annoying.

Jack Mills
Remembering last year’s stay at the Hilton in Liverpool, I checked the situation on tipping via your room tab. Don’t – it won’t find its way to the staff you want to thank. Give them cash, personally.

The staff themselves were unfailingly polite, helpful and friendly. I have no gripe with them whatsoever.

But for a supposedly four-star hotel, the owners are playing rip-off games and also allowing the building to rot, without bothering to invest in work that clearly needs doing rather seriously.

Mould on windows or in baths, as was apparently found by a number of people on check in, is simply not acceptable.

Hopefully, someone else will take it off Hilton’s hands soon – and then spend the money that needs investing to return it to its former glory.

Friday, 13 June 2014

Context, logic and the horrors in religious books

According to reports from the UK schools inspector, Ofsted, an English primary school in Luton has been found to have books in it that involve what most people would regard as fairly extreme ideas, including stonings and lashings.

The BBC has stated that books in the schoollibrary included “The Ideal Muslim by Dr Muhammad Ali Al-Hashimi, which advocates parents hitting children if they do not pray by the age of 10, the report said.

“Another, Commanders Of The Muslim Army by Mahmood Ahmad Ghadanfar, was said to praise individuals who ‘loved death more than life in their pursuit of righteous and true religion’.”

The school has been told that it must act to meet “key standards for independent schools.

“These include ensuring the curriculum ‘better prepares [pupils] for living in modern Britain ... in line with the laws of the land’ and having library books with ‘balanced and tolerant views which reflect British democratic values’.”

A couple of things occur.

First, its actually worth asking why some people find the idea of stoning as a method of execution so bad, if they believe that capital punishment is otherwise acceptable. Could there be anything less civilised than employing – and paying – people to come up with methods of execution that are not cruel and unusual?

If you find the idea of burying someone up to their chest or neck and then belting them with rocks until bloodied and dead, do you not also find the idea of hanging bad? And what about strapping someone to a table and injecting them with chemicals that, when they work properly, stop that persons heart?

Anyway, back in 2012, education secretary Michael Gove announced that every school was to be sent a special copy of the King James Bible, to mark the 400th anniversary of its translation, and complete with an introduction by the minister himself.

As it happened, even Prime Minister David Cameron baulked at the idea of public funding for the project at a time of cuts, and it was decided that it would be done via donations.

It was never made clear just how many UK schools do not already possess at least one Bible – and in that particular translation – but it seems unlikely to be a large number.

But if we can feel fairly safe in the assumption that the overwhelming majority of schools will already be in possession of at least one Bible, then it’s also clear that the overwhelming majority of schools will be in possession of a book that condones and suggests an awful lot of spectacularly nasty stuff.

There are stonings and plenty of other brutal killings in the Bible.

Take the tale of Onan, for instance. After his brother died, God ordered him to, in effect, ‘take over’ his widowed sister in law.

He refused to take her sexually, ‘spilled his seed on the ground’ and was killed for that. Hence ‘onanism’ being a synonym for masturbation.

The Bible is full of stuff like that.

Now obviously, most believers – well, at least those in what we like to see as the tolerant, generally sensible West – don’t take all the Old Testament horrors too literally.

Some believers play the old pick ‘n’ mix game and ignore some of the most horrific bits – few will demand, for instance, that a woman should take two birds to her priest to be sacrificed after her period has finished, so as to ‘cleanse’ her, although plenty who would reject that will still quote the same book of Leviticus on homosexuality.

Colour your own child sacrifice
But it’s all too easy to think that no Christian would ever take the most brutal aspects of the Bible things literally.

The woman, who subsequently tried to kill herself, left a note saying that the sermon had really affected her, but that God never told me to stop!

A solitary exception?

As the BBC reported yesterday, around 50 independent schools in the UK use the Accelerated Christian Education (ACE) curriculum, which has been imported from the US.

The course makes some interesting observations on homosexuality, which are worth reproducing at length.

Homosexuality. Homosexual activity is another of man’s corruptions of God’s plan. The prefix homo- comes from a Greek word that means “same.” Homosexuals engage in sexual activity with their own sex. The Bible records that God destroyed the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah because of homosexual activity.

“Some people mistakenly believe that an individual is born a homosexual and his attraction to those of the same sex is normal. Because extensive tests have shown that there is no biological difference between homosexuals and others, these tests seem to prove that homosexuality is learned behavior [sic]. The Bible teaches that homosexuality is sin. In Old Testament times, God commanded that homosexuals be put to death. Since God never commanded death for normal or acceptable actions, it is as unreasonable to say that homosexuality is normal as it to say that murder is normal.”

Where shall we start?

First, it presents the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah by God as having been an historic event – and because of homosexuality.

And nowhere does it suggest that God might just have been a bit OTT and that, obviously, He wouldn’t go around acting like that nowadays.

Nowhere does it point out that God saved one ‘good’ man from Sodom and Gomorrah – and his daughters and (almost) his wife – but that Lot was considered as the one good man worth saving irrespective of his having tried to pimp his daughters to be gang-raped as a way of distracting a group of adult males wanting sex with other adult males.

Go on – read the story, because that’s what the Good Book says.

If that should alert people to one point, its that what might have been acceptable in the dim and distant past is not acceptable now – in other words, that humanity has moved on since such books were written and such stories told. And that applies to every single ancient religious text.

Nor does the ACE brainwashing teaching point out that after Lot and his daughters successfully flee (his wife is turned to a pillar of salt by God after she looks back at Sodom), the daughters rape their father when he’s drunk and get themselves up the duff.

Then, of course, there’s the absence of basic logic in the conclusions on homosexuality being “learned”, which are nonsense. There doesn’t have to be a discernible biological difference for sexuality not to be “learned”.

The thing is, though, once you introduce children to certain parts of a story as a literal, historic truth that must be accepted uncritically, how do they know not to take the rest of it in the same manner when they read that later on – particularly when the entire book is being taught as the word of God?

Indeed, very carefully, the ACE teaching effectively presents God’s condemnation of homosexuals as factual, without any moral comment. But since it also presents that god as all-knowing and generally infallible – He’s God, after all – then how can God be wrong if He chooses to punish homosexuals with death?

You can probably guess the approach that ACE takes toward evolution and science.

But these are the sort of values that are contained in the book that Michael Gove thought needed sending to every school in the UK.

‘British values’, one wonders? It’s rather doubtful that many people would think so.

But in recent years, religious faith has taken on a sort of ‘special’ nature that political leaders seem happy to encourage.

It leaves us with a situation where questioning any religious beliefs can be decried as offensive’ or even ‘discriminatory.

Well, how about a quite simple question on about what many non-fundamentalist believers believe?

For instance, many mainstream Christians, while absolutely rejecting the horrors of the Old Testament, would still says that they believe that God was the father of Jesus Christ.

The trouble is, if you believe that, how do you reconcile it with modern morals – and, indeed, with ‘British values’ – given that the Bible story makes it entirely clear that God didn’t ask Mary’s permission first, and that she was only notified by an angel after she had been impregnated?

Wouldn’t that be classed as rape?

There are layers to all this. Some indoctrination is rather more subtle/sophisticated that other indoctrination.

And there are questions of harm: in the grand scheme of things, does it really matter if someone believes that Mary was impregnated by God – and then quietly fudges over the ethical implications of that belief?

The mere presence of a book on a school library shelf does not automatically mean that children are being taught that everything in it is acceptable.

But it is entirely reasonable to ask what any school is doing – never mind a primary school – with a modern book (first published in 2007) that proclaims beating a child if he or she doesn’t say their prayers by the age of 10.

Its not censorship to say theres no place for such a book in any school any more than it would be for any such library to have modern Christian books on parenting that promote regular beatings – a variety of literary endeavour to which a number of cases of child murder in the US have been linked.

There is a difference between modern books and ancient ones – even when the latter include particularly nasty things, as does the Bible and, no doubt the Quran too (I havent read any of the latter so am in no position to comment specifically on it).

Perfect entertainment for children
The differences between different flavours of fundamentalists are not as wide as some might imagine.

Everyone has – or should have – the right to believe whatever they want.

Clearly they have the right to tell their children what they believe.

But in that case, perhaps the ultimate solution is for all education to be secular – if for no other reason than to give every child the space in which to learn about the wider world, outside their own parents’ ideologies and beliefs.

Any curriculum should include teaching children about religion in the broadest sense – in that it exists in many forms and has done throughout history etc. This should be entirely neutral.

In the meantime, if we’re going to have politicians near the end of their term in office wittering on about ‘British values’, then it would be rather nice if they would make at least a tiny effort to think through what they’re on about.

And if were going to have edicts about school libraries that contain only books with ‘balanced and tolerant views which reflect British democratic values’, then whoever came up with that garbled, populist soundbite better get ready to ban the Bible, the Quran and plenty, plenty more, including, but not limited to, any books of Greek or Norse myths and legends.

Monday, 2 June 2014

A World Cup-sized waste of plastic

The bottle
On most working days, I like to step outside the office and take the air, sipping a peppermint tisane outside the delightful Albertini, which is just off Euston Road.

On Fridays, the Chalton Street market provides additional people-watching possibilities.

A stall that is set up almost directly next to where I tend to be sitting sells a variety of curtains and cushion covers and various similar items, but I’m always most amused by the handwritten notice in one crate, proclaiming that the contents are “‘Genuine’ plastic tablecloths”.

Does the use of single quote marks around the “genuine” mean that we should take the claim with a pinch of salt? Has someone invented a type of ‘fake’ plastic? Is it a costermonger’s joke based on the common conflation of ‘fake’ and ‘plastic’?

I don’t know the answer to these questions, but it remains amusing.

Plastic tablecloths – red and white check, of course – have a place. Nothing else is acceptable or appropriate when consuming proper fish and chips in a proper northern chippy that knows how to do them properly.

White mugs of tea – complete with a chip on the side – are also obligatory, as are proper mushy peas, Sarsons vinegar and plates piled high with thick slices of factory bread.

There is a possibility that such a table adornment would be appropriate in a down-to-earth Italian restaurant too, on which could stand a bottle of white, a bottle of red, perhaps a bottle of rose instead …

There are, indeed, myriad uses for plastic that range from the plastic as tacky to the plastic as high-quality material.

It’s a versatile material without which it would be difficult to contemplate modern life as we know it.

But given that substantial amounts of plastics are derived from petrochemicals, which are not an infinite resource, and given that many plastics are not particularly good at biodegrading, one might be forgiven for thinking that it would be sensible to be ... well, sensible about how you use it.

Recycling is sensible too – and not just in terms of sticking things in a bag or crate for collection once a week, but also by using a plastic object more than once.

Yes – even that plastic cutlery that gets divvied out in sandwich shops can be washed and used for more than a single lunch.

Similarly, I doubt I’m the only person who has a bag full of plastic bags in the kitchen. Some are used over and over again, but all have at least a second use, while if I know I’m going shopping, I take a bag or bags with me.

But there are times when you look at something and find yourself musing on the utter stupidity of it – and the absolute waste of resources.

A particular example occurred the other day, when my shopping order included, as expected, a bottle of Listerine mouth wash.

This time, however, something was different.

The cup
It usually involves a plastic top on a plastic bottle – the former of which can be used as a cup. This is sealed in place by, err, plastic.

A spanking new ‘limited edition’ version still sees that – but with the addition of the extra plastic cup, that is then held in place by a further plastic seal.

And by way of explanation, the extra little plastic cup bears the legend “Official oral care sponsor – FIFA World Cup Brasil [sic]”.

Come on brand owner Johnson & Johnson – is this doubling up of a cup (and seals to hold the extra one in place over the usual one) really a responsible use of a resource?

But that little plastic cup actually tells another story that is, in it’s way, just as depressing or soul destroying.

Someone, somewhere, is paid to come up with promotional ideas such as this.

And someone, somewhere, is paid to design such things.

Is that really productive work?

Well presumably it is – in terms of creating profit for the companies in question, but that begs questions about what constitutes productive work and how we add value to society as a whole.

Now I understand the need to design and produce containers for, say, mouth wash. And I understand that design can both be about aesthetics and for rather more utilitarian reasons. And that design can, for instance, reduce the amount of plastic used and thereby save money and resources.

But this little ‘freebie’ has nothing to do with any of that.

To some free market fundamentalists, designing something like this would be more valuable – assuming it increases units sold – than someone who is a nurse in a public health system.

Yet it reflects something that it’s hard not conclude isn’t downright bonkers.

And that bonkersness extends to anyone who might buy a bottle of Listerine simply because it’s got a “limited edition” World Cup cup strapped to it.

For goodness sake – who in all hell is impressed by a company proclaiming that it’s the “official oral care sponsor” of a sports tournament?

Yes – I know how advertising works: I know that even major brands spend fortunes in order to maintain levels of brand awareness, for instance.

Gratuitous picture of Joe Hart
And I get that companies want to have their products associated with success – so you can see the logic of Proctor & Gamble paying Manchester City and England goalkeeper Joe Hart to advertise Head & Shoulders shampoo, just as past generations of men were, presumably, tempted to splash on a bit of Brut by enry Cooper.

Those, however, relied on the sportsman promoting an actual product – not offering a ridiculous and inelegantly-branded little plastic cup as an enticement to buy.

Is there really anyone out there who is dozy enough to start using a product or to change the one they use because of such a claim and because of an extra bit of entirely superfluous plastic?

Presumably there must be – but then there are plenty of people out there who have, over the years, fallen for buying one variety of fast food crap over another so that their children can walk away with a bit of plastic tat (which helpfully ties in with marketing a film) or a sugar-laden cereal so that their offspring can have some freebie.

Just buy the product you need/want – and then give 10p to a charitable concern you care about, for goodness sake!

But in Listerines single, small marketing scheme, you have an indicator of so much that is wrong in the world today.

And while there’s no guarantee, whats the betting that the US owners of Listerine, Johnson & Johnson, are far from being particularly interested in Association Football?

Bloody corporate plastic fans.