Monday, December 20, 2010


Along with a chocolate tree and peas, straight from the pod, for throwing at people, an essential for Christmas dinner is brandy butter, aka hard sauce. When you pour brandy over a hot Christmas pudding and set fire to it, and pass round portions still flickering with blue flames, brandy butter should melt into the pudding, releasing heady fumes that can bring tears to the eye.

You need butter, caster sugar and brandy. You also need a wooden spoon and a good-sized bowl. Not an electric mixer – you can’t make brandy sauce the easy way. And no, you don’t need help – you will have to elbow the help out of the way.

Let the butter soften. No, no, not in the microwave – you will end up with a yellow mess. Beat the softened butter with the wooden spoon. Go on, more. Beat harder. When it’s creamy and light tip sugar into it and beat some more. Keep adding sugar and beating until your arm starts to ache.

Unscrew the brandy bottle and slurp some into the mixture. That makes it easier and you can carry on beating. Leave bottle open, you aren’t finished with it yet. If you accidentally spill brandy onto the bench, you can use your finger to sort of lift it up. Lick your finger. Repeat the process: add sugar, beat. Slosh in brandy, beat. Taste mixture. Careful with that brandy, it’s going all over the bench.

Fumes getting up nose? Taste mixture. Finger scraped round inside of whatsit, bowl, ish good way. Thish recipe’s been handed down from … shomeone. Aunt? Hmmm. Needs more sauce – er, brandy. Beat. Getting a bit sloppy – more sugar. Whaddaya mean shloppy? I been making thish for ever, know how to do – gerroff. Maste tixture. No you can’t lick spoon, not finished with … More brandy …

When really, really tired, pile stuff into fancy thingy, cover and put into refri – regif – frater … cold place. Lick wooden spoon. Lick bench. Lick fingers. Lick bowl. Have nice nap.

Tuesday, December 7, 2010


In the old days of sailing ships there was a great to-do when crossing the equator. King Neptune, the lord of the sea, had to be appeased by anyone, passengers or crew, who had not trespassed on his domain before. The ceremony of crossing the line was a rite of passage, and could involve anything from a splashing of water to no-holds-barred. In the sailing ship Euterpe, on the voyage of 1879, almost no one escaped.

The ship’s newspaper, The Euterpe Times, stuck its tongue firmly in its cheek and declared that several of the passengers were anxious about crossing the line, not on account of any shaving by Neptune or other pranks by the sailors but the consequences to the ship and themselves. Would it, for example, cause the Euterpe to bump violently? Some expressed their determination not to sleep until the line was safely passed, for fear it should be crossed in the night and they should be pitched out of bed. Others expected to actually see the line, “something of the nature of a clothesline we presume”.

At about 9pm on 30 September Neptune was heard bellowing from under the bowsprit, demanding to come aboard. He was dressed in an old coat and long whiskers made of towed flax, and his arrival triggered “a jolly spree at water throwing.” The lifeboats had been secretly filled with water beforehand and everyone on deck, including the captain, got a soaking. “Even the ladies joined in the water fight” wrote one passenger, and only the women who were below decks escaped. A few men who tried to hide in their cabin were hauled on deck for a good wetting.

In the climax of the entertainment the sailors “shaved” three of their comrades who had not crossed the line before, by lathering their faces with tar and dirt and then scraping it off with a large wooden “razor”. If the victim opened his mouth to yell or protest (and who could help it?) he got a mouthful of tar and dirt, and buckets of water were thrown over him. All but one of the passengers were spared this treatment – Captain Phillips would not allow it – but “as for water, we were all thoroughly drenched” wrote one.

The unlucky passenger was a young man called Peck who had rashly declared that he would “fell the first one who touched him”. A diarist described how three figures emerged from behind the after hatch, seized him and threw him violently on his back, and “in less [time] than it takes to write these words he was bedaubed with a compound of molasses and dirt and dowsed with a few buckets of water.” It didn’t end there. “He had returned to the forward part of the ship and was busy cleaning the dirt off his face and neck when someone threw a pailful of tar from one of the boats right on to his head, nearly suffocating him and covering his hair with the nastiness.”

At the end of the festivities there was dancing on deck and “altogether a night of a queer sort was enjoyed very much” by crew and passengers – except possibly young Peck.

Friday, December 3, 2010


Here is a subversive, disloyal and provocative question that is likely to bring me a heap of trouble: Why buy books – specially novels – that you are going to read only once?

For obvious reasons, the idea of not buying books is anathema to bookish people, including writers, of which I am one (although I am not a writer of books). If people didn’t buy books, the trade would collapse, writers would starve and we would have nothing new to read. But (I’m already hunting for a flak-jacket and taking cover) the fact is that many books are read only once, unless they contain material that can be studied, consulted or otherwise needed for on-going use. This usually, although not always, means non-fiction. Novels, unless they seem destined for classic status, are once-onlies.

In our house there were always too many books and not enough shelf space, so once in a while we had a clear-out. The books that ended up in the discard pile were those we had read and were never going to read again. These were usually novels of the ephemeral kind (do I hear the whine of bullets coming my way?) and other books which didn’t measure up for any reason. Sometimes we made more weighty, fraught decisions that were like sawing off a limb: did we really want to keep that old set of Dickens, and the Foresters? What about the Trollopes and Hardys? The sorting process was painful and conducted in loud voices, with much squabbling and snatching backwards and forwards.

If possible we passed the books on, free to a good home. We tried giving boxes of the better sort of books to schools, but they only wanted ones with bright covers. (What was that about judging a book by its cover?) We thought of stealing around in the night and leaving boxes outside libraries but that seemed as wicked as abandoning babies. The second-hand shops, once the source of pocket money, became unaccountably empty of staff when we appeared with bulging boxes.

I look at the shelves now and see too many books. They have stretched and multiplied again. There is a shelf over there with other people’s books – they must be returned. There are another two shelves, where the books I don’t want are jammed in tight, and something will have to be done. Perhaps a trip to the tip? Apart from these, there are no books in the house that I can do without. Not without angst anyway.

But if I, and people like me, don’t buy books that we won’t want to keep, if we only buy novels as presents for other people to read once and pass on, if we depend on public libraries, the libraries of friends, and the second-hand markets, for our more ephemeral reading matter, who will write them, and who will publish them?