Thursday, 2 December 2010

Food Glorious Food

Deborah recently wrote a wonderful blog post about weight-loss. In it she mentioned my love of (frugal) cookery, so I thought I might write a little about it here.

Long before I fell ill, I developed a series of food allergies and intolerances. My symptoms are in no way life threatening, but some (notably some food colourings and dairy products) can be very nasty indeed. To this day I am very nervous of things that make me dizzy because, having had a great many Easter eggs under doctors orders, I had a rather nasty fit at the age of 7 or so during which the entire world seemed to be spinning at a rate of knots.

I am also somewhat allergic to the wanton spending of cash. Especially when it's my own. I've tried to explain it away...but it's true. I'm tight. Clearance, Bargain and Value feature highly in my yearly account sheet. If I can save a few quid, even if it requires a bit of work, then I will do. While away from home recently to see a production of the Lysistrata (more on that in a later post), I ended up logged on to the internet, saving £2 on a dvd boxset. And it wasn't even for me.

This extends to my taste for food. It's not that I don't enjoy expensive food. I once had some extremely expensive champagne which was truly lovely. Smoked salmon is one of my favourites. And there's a date and walnut 'loaf' made by Pastilla Nash which is unbelievably nice.

My problem is that whilst consuming these delicacies, I can hear the pound coins rattle down my gullet and it can get in the way of the enjoyment. Something akin to going to Glyndebourne whilst listening to Gogol Bordello on your iPod *. If I can enjoy something and also have the warm feeling of frugality burning away in my heart, everything feels golden. Even if it is only 9ct plated.

So here are the cheap cooking tips I will share for free. Further information will be available in the forthcoming cook book 'Frugal Food'.

  • Get a slow cooker - cheap on fuel as well as being easy to use with cheap cuts of meat. Try slow cooked liver with a spicy tomato sauce. Plenty of onions and peppers.
  • Don't be afraid of the Value range - sometimes value means plain awful or unethically produced. There is no point saving money if you're trampling on your ethics or making food that's just not good. But often value food is just graded products. Mushrooms that are funny shapes and sizes, for example, are sold in nice big trays at tesco for a pittance. Sliced and diced these babies are just as lovely as their expensive brethren. Remember - never judge a book by it's cover.
  • Cook BIG - it's often cheaper to cook in bulk and then freeze. When it comes to things like chili and curries, this can actually help the flavour. This also gets you into a mind-set where you're not ever going to waste any food - you're making as much as possible and then dividing it out into portions rather than making a little too much, popping the left over in the fridge and never getting around to finishing it.
  • Be excited by food - it's easy to think that the only time that food is exciting is when visiting an expensive restaurant. Food is such a gift! There are so many exciting flavours. Those flavours can be combined. Textures then can be bought into the mix. And temperatures. And it's all in your power to explore it!

So lets get some examples of my own personal favourites;


Rye Bread Bacon sandwich with onions, tomatoes and gherkin

The rye bread is made of 100% rye flour in a Panasonic bread maker. Smoked bacon is fried in a pan with no oil at all. Half a small red onion is sliced very finely indeed and added to the pan. A small tomato is also sliced and added at the point the onion is almost cooked. The rye bread is toasted and spread with a little mustard (english or wholegrain...preference would by the english for this dish) and then a single small gherkin (crunchier the better) is sliced and added on top of the bacon and onion/tomato relish type mix.

REMEMBER - for a sandwich to be good there should be no possible way of eating it without making a complete mess. If you have clean fingers at the end you're not trying hard enough.


Smoked Salmon Omelette

Two eggs and two tablespoons of milk are whisked until frothy. Frothy eggs give a light omelette. In a small frying pan, fry off half a small red onion (the half you had left having done the sandwich the day before) with some oil from a jar of sun dried tomatoes. There are all manner of things you can add at this point. But I'd say the only essentials are a couple of sundried tomatoes chopped up and a mushroom sliced if you have it. Once they're cooked up, put in some tesco smoked salmon trimmings. Honestly, this is such a good idea - using up the scraps from the factory is doing everyone a favour, especially your wallet. Uncooked the trimmings can sometimes be not quite as enjoyable as the proper slices, but with this kind of thing they're perfect. Pour the eggs on top and jiggle everything about to get the eggs to the bottom of the pan. Add some cheese on top and wack under the grill. Serve with green salad.


Fried River Cobbler / Basa Fish

River Cobbler (also known as Basa Fish) is farmed mainly in Vietnam and looking at a photo might put you off trying it. I have a few problems with the food miles involved, but at the same time, the farming of this fish is giving villages an industry and I approve of that. I also approve of the fish which has a firm flesh which is very hard to ruin. I enjoy frying fish which I've cut down to small fish finger sized portions, marinated in the juice of a lemon with a generous teaspoon of cayenne pepper and then coated with some seasoned cornflour. Again, I make more than I could possibly use and then freeze what's left. It can then be popped under the grill. Trust me - a fish finger sandwich done with this is absolutely out of this world. And a note on fish finger sandwiches - they may be expensive, but if you want to treat yourself, buy some capers. Just six or seven in a fish finger sandwich add such a little lift.


Bon apetit!

*Not that I have an iPod. I have a Sony MP3 player which I bought partly because it was much better value.

Tuesday, 16 November 2010

Dreams to Dream

I am a prolific dreamer. It is, simply, one of my best and one of my worst traits.

It reflects my creativity, both narrative and imagery. It allows me to escape the worst bits of the world when I have to. And when I don't, I can sometimes use my dreamy nature to help lift some of the more boring parts of life and make them enjoyable.

But there's also a down side. It's easy to lose one's train of thought or, even worse, for that train of thought to be derailed without you realising and to spend what should be a time of serious and intense study when you should be applying yourself utterly to analysing the sexual nature of the god Dionysus (really...I was reading about it only the other week), studying with equal fervor the results of Strictly Come Dancing or weather trends. Not helpful to a Classics degree.

But worse still are the nightmares. There's nothing I can really say to make them funny. Well, maybe I can, but the jokes are hollow and cold. The first pain related nightmare I had involved a giant turtle biting off my leg. The image is ridiculous and should be laughed at....but I just can't raise the smile.

Tonight was one of the worst. It was a beautifully developed piece of terror with better narrative construction than most classic horror films. Pacing and build up were perfect. And the overlapping of supernatural and entirely natural psycho killer story arches built into a horrible climax. Although thankfully I didn't reach the end. I woke up, feeling like I'd been dreaming for days...holding my face, half of which had just been burnt off by the previously mentioned psycho killer.

And so I have been awake for well over an hour now. The quiet dark time feeling the flood of adrenalin fade away. My stomach begins to settle. And my pounding hot heart delights at the sinking coldness of the air. I can feel the frost outside and the cold light of dawn is replacing the distant orange light of street lamps.

Dreams to dream...thank you very much Linda Ronstadt.

Thursday, 11 November 2010

The Essence of Good Design

I have written previously about how comfortable I find sitting outside hospital buildings. The architecture is not the source of nightmares that it can be for some people. This does not extend to all things medical, however. In fact, I have a dislike verging on the phobic when it comes to doctors. Nurses I'm happy with - in general they have a sense of humour and a detached attitude which I find almost relaxing. But doctors...eurgh...they're up there with spiders in my opinion.

So when I decide I need to see a doctor (which, you can imagine, does not happen often) it is with a sense of trepidation tinged with terror. And this happened just the other day. It was my first visit to this particular surgery, having only recently moved to the area (recently! It's nearly been a year...but that's far too early to have to consult a demon of the MD rank) which seemed to make things doubly difficult.

Although not relaxing, the GP waiting room proved a rather wonderful distraction. First there's the people watching. Highlight of this trip was a rather lovely Asian woman and her baby who had just discovered all the sounds he was capable of making. Most of them resembling the gurgles of a human digestive tract in distress. Well, I say this. I was in a GP's waiting room. It could very easily have been a human digestive tract in distress and I just didn't correctly identify the culprit.

Anyway, my main point for writing then grabbed my attention. Although I never would, I'd love to be able to take my camera everywhere I go. And I have never felt that quite so much as now. On the wall, amongst the posters for stroke information (FAST - Face, Arm, Speech, Test) and Flu Jab schedule was a lovingly crafted piece of design.

You know when you see a poster and almost feel like you have a glimpse into the psyche of the graphic designer? Never have I felt this so strongly. The raven-black background. The stark white font. Text perfectly balanced against the brilliant red blood drop taking up two thirds of the space.


Yes, here was a medical information poster created by someone who desperately, in the secret dark places of his soul, wanted to design book covers for Stephanie Meyer. Malaria by Twilight.

Coincidentally, I had blood taken and it was done with a level of skill and care I have never met before. You don't think that my local GP is actually a front for a coven of Vampires, do you...?

Sunday, 24 October 2010

The Secret Garden (aka my mid-life crisis)

Earlier in the year, the BBC News website had an article about the phenomenon of Mid-Life Crisis and how it appears to be happening earlier on in life - specifically between the ages of 35 and 44.

Well I am 28 years of age and it appears to have hit. And what have I done with this? Have I purchased a sports car, started chasing after 19 year old girls or slipped into a pair of embarrassingly tight jeans? No. I've been recapturing my youth in a slight different way...

The Secret Garden 11When I was 6, my parents bought me a Magic Tree. Not the air freshener of the same name, but a cardboard tree that, when soaked in chemicals, sprouted crystal blossom. This was great...I have always been a sucker for the beauty and wonder of natural (and unnatural) science*. I try never to miss the Royal Institute Christmas Lectures on television, even though I'm well past the perceived demographic age range. So when I was 7 and my parents bought me an entire garden made of this magic card, you can imagine how excited I was!

The Secret Garden 9It was diligently built and the liquid was carefully added. All that was left was time. You have to wait a good 24 hours before the crystals are really getting into their stride. Three days for them to be finished.

The Secret Garden 6But after only 12 hours, V came to visit. I will refer to her as V so as to protect her against the inevitable reprisals that would follow when I explain what happened next.

V was a typically girly 7 year old girl, but very clumsy with it. And one excessively exuberant twirl later...the Magic Garden was no more.

The Secret Garden 8I was devastated. At that moment I understood the fragility of life. The temporary nature of existence. And the true meaning of the phrase - Women: Can't Live With Them....

So how have I dealt with this emptiness, this certainty of eventual oblivion at the hands of a clumsy twirling blonde? I hit ebay and searched for Magic Garden. And what did I find?

The Secret Garden 5Yes. They still make them! I felt the same sparkle of childhood magic when I found that the 1980s packaging was still exactly the same. Thank you Taiwan. Thank you from the bottom of my heart.

So there follows the unpacking, construction and bringing to life of the Magic Garden. And what happened to it? Someone moved it and it was destroyed all over again. Still...better than driving a Hayabusa into a tree.

Click Here to view the flickr set.

*but not Weird Science. Can't stand Kelly Brook.

Monday, 11 October 2010

Hospital reflections

Isn't it funny how we get used to certain surroundings, sometimes to such an extent that somewhere which might otherwise seem uncomfortable, ugly or even dangerous can create a sense of comfort and relaxation? I have been thinking about this recently; about our environments, whatever they may be, and how they fit themselves around our minds and selves, sinking in to the conscious like brandy into a christmas cake. The alcoholic vapours may evaporate somewhat, but deep down the richness remains.

In my case, my environments have been relatively few and somewhat enforced. My health limits me in my physical scope (as I have already written about in my post on macro photography), but it has also resulted in some experiences in which my environment has sunk particularly deeply into my cake-mix. Think about it in your own lives - those places where particularly traumatic or powerful experiences occurred and how they live on with you. The vast majority of my dreams take place in one of two places (and sometimes both at the same time) - My house or a hospital.

Thankfully I've not ever required much hospitalisation, but all apart from one year of my secondary education was spent in a hospital school - a room separate from but linked to the children's ward of my local hospital. My learning was conducted to the accompaniment of overly powerful heating, the distant beep of the alarm at the nurses' desk, and the moans and groans of wounded children (who, if you know anything about wounded children, were usually moaning and groaning about the stuff every single child moans and groans about rather than their wounds). Seriously, if you've not had to concentrate on quadratics whilst someone has an epileptic fit, then you've never experienced the joys of maths (not that I ever found maths particularly joyful...but you get my point). A poorly acted play really comes to life when the main character talks about running away from their adolescent ennui, whilst immobile with their leg in a fixator.

And I remember distinctly the presence of the hospital at lunch times. Sat outside in the harsh wind and cold, the building towering over me despite it being not particularly tall. Something about the construction...the lack of subtlety and design. And the light. Oh that hospital lighting. There's something about the colour of crisp white walls lit by yellowy fluorescents. It reeks of infection.

And yet I was comfortable there. Often sat with friends. Enjoying a break from work. There was never a fear of being judged...hospitals are the ultimate place of acceptance.

So last week I found myself back at a hospital, having driven my father to an appointment. And despite the anxiety over his health and the busy roads, I found myself surprisingly relaxed parked in the outpatients carpark. The walls of the building were white rather than the dark red brick of *my* hospital. There was no bench outside the heavy blue UPVC school doors. No school doors at all. But through the windows you could see the same white walls tinged puss yellow. There was the same air of acceptance. And although the car was warm, I still felt the cold winter winds blowing through me, cooling and smothering any fear and upset I felt about being in such a place.

Monday, 13 September 2010


IMG_0015b2Influence. Inspiration. The muse of fire. I've spent the last week or so thinking about what events have influenced the person I have become. What inspires me to grow as a person. What muses guide me when writing, photographing or being generally creative. It's difficult to pull apart and analyse all the different threads that are tangled in each outcome. It's a bit like a dream. The secret is to pull out the major themes and biggest subjects. Track them back to their base state.

One of the biggest influences to my photography has been Zed Nelson. Specifically his book Gun Nation. I remember the first time I leafed through it. That palpable smack as I recognised his story in the images. You can read the lives of people through the way he photographs them. And you feel the crushing weight of an entire nation pressed against your eyeballs. His photography is very different to my own - in part through necessity as I am unable to get out to chronicle lives. But I hope that I am able to inject life and stories into the things I am able to photograph. The narrative of emotion.

IMG_0007bPerhaps of an even bigger influence in terms of my final images has been the website flickr. I have been a member of the site twice. Especially during my most recent membership I have been able to pull together a contact list which has challenged and moved on my work. I am inspired, influenced and moved by a hundred different muses every day. And again, it is the story of their lives and the way that they write them down without words that really gets to the heart of me. It's the stories. Always the stories.

So tracking it back through another theme, there's my great love of The Classics. Deserving of both the capitals. Homer, Virgil, Propertius, Catullus, Sappho, Ovid - the list could go on. I discovered them years ago. Indeed, I recently rediscovered a children's poetry book which I grew up with. And hidden away in the McGough and Lear were poems by Catullus and Sappho. Catullus! In a book of children's poetry! And what poem had they chosen? 85.

odi et amo. quare id faciam, fortasse requiris?
nescio, sed fieri sentio et excrucior.

I hate and love. Why do I do this, you ask me?
I can't tell you. I just feel it happening and am wracked.

Definitely influential, that duality, and something I've tried to photograph time and again. Of course, I've failed. The day I get close to mirroring Catullus may well be the day my camera implodes. But still...something to aim for.

IMG_0002Moving forward from childhood experience of Catullus, but back from my degree, there's one man (apart from my father) who had a huge influence on the person I am today, although I don't imagine he'd realise this. When I think back to it, Nick introduced me to some of the foundation stones of my enthusiasm for and love of narrative. It was Nick who gave me my copy of Neuromancer. He told me about Twin Peaks and David Lynch. He lent me a copy of Jean de Florette. He gave me his copy of Lord of the Rings. It was down to him, in a rather indirect way, that I first watched Alien. He even copied all his Beatles albums onto cassette to give me as a Christmas present. He inspired me to branch out and be brave with films, music and literature. And to be proud and confident in that bredth of taste and appreciation.

Last night I found out that Nick co-writes a film blog. I can't tell you how happy I was to be able to read through it. I suggest you do too. You never know what inspiration you might find.

Saturday, 1 May 2010

BADD - Flying the Red Flag of Understanding

Blogging Against Disablism Day, May 1st 2010

When trying to come up with an idea for what to write about to celebrate and explore BADD (Blogging Against Disablism Day), I was a little stuck. I am lucky not to have experienced too many open acts of disablism. Those few I have had to deal with are not especially interesting and would take a writing skill greater than my own to make readable. So rather than look to the reactions of others, I have to look to myself.

What is it about my disability that makes me feel uncomfortable? There are things of which I find very difficult to admit. Things that make me feel less of a person. Things that are out of my control and really not very important in the grand scheme of things. So what if I'm going to have to rest part way through writing this to save my fingers, shoulders and neck from even greater pain? I am at least writing this.

The thing that I find hardest, though, are the reactions of other people. Several years ago I was well enough to “walk” my dog (Bullitt, a staffordshire-bull terrier cross) to the park. I can walk, but not very far without increasing pain and fatigue exponentially, so I use a mobility scooter for any distance greater than the length of a rather small garden (and this is on a good day). So my dear Bullitt (who is no longer with us) would pull ahead of me, whilst I'd trundle along behind on my scooter.

On the particular day I'm writing about, the summer sun was bright and strong. A really beautiful day. And Bullitt was very much looking forward to her walk and the resulting madness at the park just down the road. She particularly favoured frisbees, though being a bit of a psycho, she would jump and catch them to the point her gums bled. Anyway, I got on the scooter, stowing my walking stick in the bag on the back of the seat, standing up proud like a flag mast. Bullitt was already pulling more than usual, but I had to take the first section of the journey slowly as the drive-way was full of washing; mainly stuff belonging to my sister whose machine was broken.

Through the slightly damp clothes, through the gate and down the road - we were making good time. Most people were, no doubt, preparing their lunch and watching the news. Students (we lived by a university) were off for summer holiday. Everything seemed very quiet. In fact, I'm sure we made record time and you could feel Bullitt's joy as we rounded the corner to the park. I let her off the lead straight away and tossed the frisbee as far as I could.

I treasure those moments. Bullitt had to be put down a couple of years ago and it was very hard. I'd never known a dog who really truly loved me like she did. Her name, for all of you who are wondering, was originally Bullet – she was a rescue dog and the staff thought Bullet suited her speed (and, no doubt, her somewhat violent nature). My sister changed her name, though, to Bullitt...after the king of cool. So please, when you imagine her, think of the roar of a mustang and bouncing chases through American streets rather than full metal jackets etc.

After we'd finished (Bullitt would always get to a point where she was too tired to continue, but didn't want to go home, so she'd lie down on her frisbee in protest) I hooked the dog onto her lead, noting the spots of bright red blood staining her white mouth. Silly dog...we experimented with several toys and eventually found a rope-based frisbee that didn't end with cuts. Not that she ever seemed to feel them...but it certainly didn't look very pleasant. Anyway, we left the park, Bullitt no longer pulling as she wanted to have a sniff along the way back.

It was these times I found hardest. For one thing I had to be careful not to run her over as she'd stop quite abruptly in front of me. But mainly it meant that I was under the scrutiny of any pedestrians for a longer period of time. And there were several people about. Most ignored me. Most. But one didn't. And who was it? You expect some hideous youth complete with football shirt and IQ with a negative symbol in front of it. But it was a sweet little old lady.

She almost glared at me. Every single sensitive place was prodded within my brain and heart. She was obviously thinking what's a bloke in his early twenties doing on a mobility scooter? How weird he looks. What does he think is wrong with him? He should just get over it. Freak. Weirdo. Waste of space.

Now...I have been called most of those things before. I've had very similar questions asked of me. But I must specify that the little old lady said nothing. She just glared. Usually I shrink back into myself. I stare into nothingness and try to accept that people can think and act as they like and it's up to me not to rise to it. But there was something different about today. Maybe it was the summer sun. Maybe it was that Bullitt had enjoyed herself so much and I'd do anything to protect her right to a wonderful day at the park. Maybe I was just a bit grumpy. So instead of shrinking, I glared back.

Her eyes dropped and she didn't look at me again. Ha! Victory scored! I am here and I am proud. Yes, I have to use a scooter, but I am careful and conscientious. I am a good driver. And I have every right to use it. It's no business of anyone but mine why I might need to use it. And if she had a problem, she should have come and discussed it openly rather that throwing silly looks.

Even Bullitt seemed happier than usual as we returned home. She trotted through the gates and I turned around to close them after us.

I think I got as far as actually unhooking the gates before I noticed it. I don't know how it took me so long. The red was brighter, after all, than the crimson blood which stained Bullitt's black and white face. The lace almost glinted in the strong summer sun. And the light breeze made it flutter about like a flag.

I presume my sister's bra had hooked onto my walking stick as I left the house and as Bullitt was pulling so hard, I didn't notice the brief resistance. On the quiet and speedy walk to the park no one had seen us. But on the way back an innocent old lady was confronted by a blood-soaked bull terrier and a 6-foot unshaven man on a heavy duty four wheel scooter trailing a large bright red bra from the top of his walking stick like some kind of trophy. A man who then glared at her, daring her to say something about it.

I wish you all a happy Blogging Against Disablism Day and hope that this helps to teach you, as it did me, never to presume you know what someone's problem is. You never know when you might be inadvertently waving someone's underwear behind you.

Monday, 26 April 2010

Caged Muse

I had an interesting message today on my photostream on Flickr from the highly talented WorldScope. One of the things I most admire about his work is the great flexibility he shows in subject, genre and even technique whilst still retaining a great sense of personal style and feeling. Honestly, you must check out his work. Personally I'm still trying to work out how to go about pinching his new camera...

Anyway, he suggested that I should post more work outside of the Macro genre in which I am comfortable. He has a very good point and I've been trawling through my archives for examples I could upload (and have done...take a look and see what you think)

I'm somewhat house-bound due to illness. I am able to get out, but the process is quite involved and doesn't happen often. When it does, it's usually for a necessary action rather than an enjoyable photoshoot. For that reason, Macro photography has been extremely important to me. I've been able to expand the relatively small space I inhabit by looking much more closely into it. A flower bed suddenly becomes a forest. An every day object can become a fully paid up (and extremely cooperative) model.

This doesn't mean that I am necessarily content with things as they are, though...and I do rather wish I had people around me to model and the chance to tramp through the countryside capturing some of the images I dream of. So this rather limited selection of photographs from holidays and rare days out are rather important to me. I don't know how much skill and art they demonstrate, but every single one has a story and were of great value to me.

Sunday, 25 April 2010

Yesterday an ice-cream van drove by my bedroom window. It's signage was bright in the strong spring light, though the engine was rough and clattered in the quiet Saturday morning air.

As it disappeared down the road, the engine fading, I heard the music start up. I didn't know the tune, and it danced through the air, spinning and twirling, dipping in and out, behind hedges and cars and houses. It was at once heart breakingly beautiful and infinitely fragile.

So what'll it be? A 99, perhaps? A flake, rocket or lemonade lolly? Or the frozen tears of victorian maidens caught in a void of crumbled lace and wasted dreams? They've got it all.