November 21, 2013

Burning bright

Filed under: Canal,misc,Oxford — Duchess @ 9:33 pm

This time of year boater small talk is invariably about the fire. In September and early October, not long after hello, and how are you? we invariably ask, lit your fire yet?

Boaty Brits are not so different from other sorts, and moderation is still where virtue lies. Eyebrows are raised at news of fires before the second half of September, and the unreasonable abstinence of those who wait until November is likewise quietly despised.

But now, without controversy, the morning and evening mist above the canal is thickened with smoke, and the distinctive smell of burning coal drifts along the whole length of the city towpath moorings. Even the hardiest among us have long since lit their fires, and almost to a one we have the same goal: to keep it going continuously until sometime in March or April, when the boater greeting will change again: Still keeping your fire in? (with, perhaps, another raised eyebrow at any unusual indulgence.)

Each year, though this is my fifth winter aboard, it takes me a few weeks to get the hang of keeping the fire in. In October I often let it go out, because the discipline is new each autumn, and because warm Indian summer afternoons lure me to forget how grumpy and cold I will be in the evening, kneeling before the stove and blowing on tiny, reluctant sparks. If embers only understood cussing, they would certainly glow red.

The colder days and long nights of November bring more focus, and though I no longer forget to stoke the fire, a strong desire to stay in bed – it’s too dark and too cold to get up – means I risk the night before’s pile of coal turning to ashes long before I’ve dragged myself from under the covers. More tiny, reluctant sparks, and more bad language.

But all has been well, and the fire continuously lit, for 10 days or so, and I am congratulating myself that I have got the hang of it for another winter on board.

I thought I might try to keep a diary of this winter on Pangolin, and this is my first entry. Perhaps when I am really cold and lonely and tired of the dark, and have nothing interesting to say, I will post about the opposite – the warmth and companionship and light of the summer just gone.

April 19, 2012

Drought Orders

Filed under: BBC radio addiction,Canal,misc,Oxford — Duchess @ 10:38 pm

It’s raining hard. In fact, it has rained for some part of almost every day since a drought was officially declared last week in most of southern England and Wales. (Scotland is, as usual, drenched.)

The Orders are typically British: complicated, detailed and humane. For example, under Drought Orders you are not allowed to use a hosepipe to fill a garden pond or water feature, unless your water feature features fish.

Do not go out and buy goldfish just to beat the ban! pleaded the water company spokesman, interviewed days before the Orders came into force. The BBC journalist asked more probing questions, and we learned that any living creature you introduce into your pond triggers an exemption, while one that wanders in accidentally — a frog, say — does not.

Everyone knows the Brits are obsessed with weather. Never mind however many words Eskimos have for snow, I reckon Brits could give them a run for their money with rain. An early favourite of mine was “merged showers” but I have more recently been won over by “wetting rain”.

They teach this weather obsession in school, and they start early. When he was two and a bit, I enrolled my first born son in a playgroup run by one of the Oxford colleges. For most of the three hours, five mornings the kids raced around on tricycles. There were a few puzzles and the odd doll, but preschool was mostly about wheels; there was no structure, or even a nod at educational content, except at mid-morning juice and biscuits. Then everyone sat in a circle, and, raising her Dixie cup, the teacher solemnly asked, Now children, what is the weather like?

Later in the curriculum, I guess, the kids learn to be judgmental about weather. The “wrong kind of snow” is a well-rehearsed British Rail excuse for late trains, recently revived to explain water shortages: though apparently any kind of snow is the wrong kind of stuff to prevent a drought. What we want is the right kind of rain.

Rain is divided into “useful” rain and “not useful” rain and the weather forecasters always tell us which we are getting: very heavy rain is not useful (because it runs away too quickly); very light rain (though it might be “wetting”) is also not useful.  Basically, to prevent a drought, it needs to rain three times a fortnight, all year round, not too hard and not too soft.

Otherwise it is every frog for himself.

November 21, 2011

My new urban life

Filed under: Canal,Oxford,Politics and history — Duchess @ 10:17 pm

Agenda 21 mooring sign

Way back last summer I started to blog about how I had a new mooring.

“These days,” I wrote, “when the British Waterways inspector strides down the towpath in formal dark trousers and white short-sleeved shirt with navy epaulettes (which I guess someone in HR thought made their employees look proper nautical), I neither duck out of sight nor race out to offer him coffee and biscuits, my former alternating strategies for dealing with Pangolin’s semi-legal mooring status.  Now I don’t care when I see him tapping my license number into his hand-held electronic thingy.  He can whistle for a biscuit.”

It seemed a promising enough start, though a little unkind, and not, in fact, even true, strictly speaking.  I wouldn’t have denied the BW guy a biscuit, if I had expected him.

I’ve seen Richard (we are on a first name basis now I know how many sugars he takes) only once since I moved the boat nine miles south to just inside the Oxford city limits.  It was one of the few hot days of the summer, and I was trying to turn the clumps of nettles, brambles and ivy that line the towpath into a garden.  Every time I stuck my spade in the ground it hit rubble.

I was resting on my shovel and surveying the mound of rocks I had uncovered when Richard appeared with his epaulettes and electronics.  I glanced nervously at the rocks.  The BW rules say that I am not to alter the mooring in any way, and my biscuit tin was empty.

“I do 15 miles,” Richard replied, in response to my surprise at seeing him this far south – I thought it would be someone else’s patch — then, nodding at my boat, “I heard you moved down to Agenda 21.”  He glanced at the mound of rocks and added reassuringly, “You’ve got to make the environment friendly, don’t you?  Well, friendly to yourself, at the end of the day.”  Then he looked only half expectant before he said cheerio and headed down the towpath.  Three more miles to Oxford centre and the end of his shift.

That’s a simple enough story to relate, but I got exhausted thinking I had to explain the Byzantine rules of how British Waterways allocates moorings (in theory and in practice), how I went from squatter to semi-legal to legal, and what on earth is Agenda 21.

My exhaustion lasted all summer and well into the fall, but now I think I can explain it just one, two, three:

1. In the Old Days, when we were all Socialists, there were waiting lists.  I came to England in 1979; there were waiting lists for a telephone, for a cooker, for a car.  Thirty-some years later waiting lists were long since abandoned for almost everything, except moorings and medicine.  I think they just forgot about moorings.

2. As soon as Pangolin changed hands, her moorings were forfeit. I went on the waiting list and squatted sanguinely; it probably would have been my turn eventually if some wise guy civil servant hadn’t spent too much time on eBay getting bright ideas: as we are all Capitalists now, why shouldn’t the government throw out the lists and auction moorings on the internet instead?

3.  Meanwhile, I made a deal with Purple-Haired Emma to sublet her mooring while she went off cruising.  Subletting is not allowed, but “berth sitting for short periods” is, which Emma and I decided was much the same thing. I was well into my second year of the “short period” when the Agenda 21 mooring came up for auction. I probably could have carried on for another decade or two plying inspectors with biscuits, but I never knew when Emma would want her spot back, and anyway, I am mostly naturally law-abiding.  After four and a half years, I really wanted my own space. As is the way with auctions, I bid a little more than my absolute top price.

Which just leaves me to explain Agenda 21, an action plan that came out of the 1992 UN Earth Summit in Rio.  Right around the time of the summit, some developers wanted to buy the Oxford boat yards, throw out all the boaters, fill in the basin and build flats.  There was a great big fight that went on for almost a decade.

In the end the boat yards did close and the flats got built, but the boaters weren’t evicted: a long stretch of residential moorings was allowed along the canal, from the centre of Oxford to the Ring Road on the edge of the city.  The moorings were designated Agenda 21, in honour of the summit’s by then nearly forgotten plan for sustainable living. Ever after, anyone joining these moorings had to agree to “respect and take up” 10 “aspirations” and “abide by” another 6 “guidelines”.  (I’ve copied them below.)

Despite a lamentable failure to embrace the subjunctive, the original drafters of these aspirations and guidelines meant well, though I am not sure they were a lot more careful of their science than they were of their grammar.  Diesel engines and coal fires, almost universal fittings on canal boats, are not environmentally friendly.

Another ten years on, a good crop of nettles growing up the side of the boat and a clandestine electricity feed seem the most obvious mark of an Agenda 21 boater.

Pangolin has neither! (though I plead guilty to the whopping great diesel engine and the coal fire).  Nevertheless, I am willing to do my best toward the aspirations and the guidelines:  I haven’t recently threatened anyone with violence or persecution, or ever thrown ashes in the canal, and I stand ready to respect any vole or Interested Scientist who should happen by.

In the meantime I grow flowers and feed the birds.  As the BW guy said, You’ve got to make the environment friendly to yourself, at the end of the day.
The Aspirations:

Energy and natural resources are used efficiently.
Pollution is limited to levels which a natural system can cope with.
Waste is minimised.
The diversity of nature is valued and protected.
Local distinctiveness and diversity are valued and protected.
Health is promoted by clean, safe and pleasant environments.
People live without fear of personal violence and persecution.
All sections of the community are empowered to participate in decision-making.
A wide range of living styles is accepted.
The existence of environmentally sensitive areas such as vole habitats and the Sites of Special Scientific Interest are respected.

The Guidelines:

There are no site-specific services (e.g. mains electricity, water, phone lines, post boxes
There is no towpath lighting.
Be aware of generator use.  We adhere to the British Waterways regulations and in addition prefer to use solar and wind power where appropriate.
We undertake not to put harmful waste in the canal (i.e. engine oil, ashes).  All waste is disposed of appropriately.
We endeavour to share knowledge and skills for environmentally conscious living (i.e. awareness of waste disposal, biodegradable detergent, etc).
We will continue to meet and discuss relevant issues for our community in an open forum.

January 26, 2009

Burns Night

Filed under: A long way from home,misc,Oxford — Duchess @ 3:50 pm

Yesterday was officially Burns Night, but as Sunday is an awkward evening for overindulgence, we marked the 250th anniversary of Robbie Burns’s birth with a supper on Friday instead.

I have never quite understood why the Oxford college where I work is such an ardent supporter of the night dedicated to the great Scottish Poet, but it is, and every year we celebrate it faithfully by dressing up in black tie and eating and drinking a great deal too much. 

Friday, after we had drunk a bit in the Senior Common Room, beginning as we meant to go on, we were summoned to the Hall where the students were already seated and waiting.  A gavel was banged and everyone stood for the grace.  This (as I have mentioned before) is usually two Latin words uttered by the Principal or, in her absence, the Senior Fellow, but on Burns Night we have instead the Selkirk Grace, recited in a gentle Scottish accent by one of the world’s leading experts in wildlife conservation.  His day job involves saving the British water vole and other endangered species, but on Burns Night, dressed in his kilt, he is the poet’s voice:

Some hae meat and canna eat,
   And some wad eat that want it;
But we hae meat, and we can eat, 
  And sae the Lord be thankit

Moments later we were served with cock-a-leekie soup and a wee dram of 15 year old single malt whiskey. 

When that was cleared away the undergraduates began to shuffle and there were sounds of chairs scraping the floor as they turned to greet the piper, preceding the haggis.  My office overlooks the College gardens and I had been listening to the drone of distant bagpipes all week — the playing fields on the edge of the River Cherwell were considered the only suitable place for tonight’s musician to practice such cacaphony.

The piper led the haggis in a triumphant circuit of the dining room until the platter was finally placed before our wildlife guy, who each year supplies himself with a dagger, dramatically pulled from his kilt.  The BBC website instructions on how to host a Burns Supper are very particular on the protocol at this point:

Warning: it is wise to have a small cut made in the haggis skin before it is piped in. Instances are recorded of top table guests being scalded by flying pieces of haggis when enthusiastic reciters omitted this precaution! Alternatively, the distribution of bits of haggis about the assembled company is regarded in some quarters as a part of the fun…

The recital ends with the reader raising the haggis in triumph during the final line Gie her a haggis!, which the guests greet with rapturous applause.

When our haggis was delivered to the table the chefs and piper stood by as our Fellow spoke:

Fair fa’ your honest, sonsie face,
Great chieftain o’ the pudding-race!
Aboon them a’ ye tak your place,
Painch , tripe, or thairm :
Weel are ye wordy o’a grace
As lang’s my arm.

The groaning trencher there ye fill,
Your hurdies like a distant hill,
Your pin wad help to mend a mill
In time o’need,
While thro’ your pores the dews distil
Like amber bead.

His knife see rustic Labour dight ,
An’ cut you up wi’ ready sleight,
Trenching your gushing entrails bright,
Like ony ditch;
And then, O what a glorious sight,
Warm-reekin’ , rich!

Then, horn for horn , they stretch an’ strive:
Deil tak the hindmost! on they drive,
Till a’ their weel-swall’d kytes belyve
Are bent like drums;
Then auld Guidman, maist like to rive ,
Bethankit ! hums.

Is there that owre his French ragout
Or olio that wad staw a sow,
Or fricassee wad make her spew
Wi’ perfect sconner ,
Looks down wi’ sneering, scornfu’ view
On sic a dinner?

Poor devil! see him owre his trash,
As feckless as wither’d rash ,
His spindle shank , a guid whip-lash;
His nieve a nit ;
Thro’ bloody flood or field to dash,
O how unfit!

But mark the Rustic, haggis-fed ,
The trembling earth resounds his tread.
Clap in his walie nieve a blade,
He’ll mak it whissle ;
An’ legs an’ arms, an’ heads will sned ,
Like taps o’ thrissle .

Ye Pow’rs, wha mak mankind your care,
And dish them out their bill o’ fare,
Auld Scotland wants nae skinking ware
That jaups in luggies ;
But , if ye wish her gratefu’ prayer
Gie her a haggis!

If you would like to hear the poem out loud, here it is.) 

Our amateur Fellow really does it with great enthusiasm, especially the warm — reekin, rich! And the haggis was duly piereced.

I’m a bit of a fan of haggis, though I admit it sounds quite disgusting.  I tried it tentatively, a newspaper wrapped lump of gristle, grease and offal served up in a chippy in Oban more than thirty years ago when I first visited Scotland on holiday with my mother. She and I are both adventurous eaters so we bravely ordered that traditional feast on a night when it was optional (it is required on 25 January). 

I’m not sure my mother has tried again, but I can assure you that the version we get in College really is warm — reekin, rich!  And I was hungry enough to echo what I take to be, more or less, the translation of that last line of Burns’s address to the night’s pudding: Give us here our haggis!

There were, of course, neeps (=turnips) and tatties (=potatoes), and more drams of whiskey, and lots of gravy, which the Scots at table objected to — traditionally no gravy with haggis, apparently (but I, for one, like my offal well drown-ed).

Later, with another bang of the gavel we adjourned for coffee and yet more whiskey and poetry.  And everyone talked about just how long it had been since you didn’t need Latin to get a medical degree at Oxford, and the very best way to study physics, the Prisoners’ Dilemma, moral hazard, Tuscan holidays, World War I, quilting, flute playing, and whether Obama was really President when he signed those first executive orders.

It’s a life.

October 22, 2008

A tale of two dinners, or never mind the jelly, where’s the Sauterne?

Filed under: Canal,misc,Oxford — Duchess @ 2:02 pm

The Rock of Gibraltar pub is a quarter of a mile lurch up the tow path from my boat and then just over the canal bridge. When I come in, the landlord, Stematos, Greek with a heavy accent, greets me extravagantly and almost gets my name right. He’s the optimist in the family. His wife, British and apple checked, has taken my measure more carefully and knows my custom isn’t worth bothering about. If I arrive for a late lunch and ask tentatively if they are still serving the wife will throw her hands on her hips and say, Well I won’t do baguettes at this time of day!

Which is code for saying that at 3 o’clock she will not do new fangled foreign yuppie sandwiches. She will only do the kind of good honest British sandwiches she’s used to from the days when a ham sandwich was a ham sandwich — meaning two slices of nice British squashy supermarket bread, buttered, with a single, thin slice of ham in the middle and if you look kind of hopeful and ask in a quizzical way mustard? tomato? lettuce? mayonnaise? she might be tempted to report you to MI6 or at least Customs and Excise for subversive tendencies.

The food at the Rock is usually not bad, though, and on Greek Nights it is positively good. There have been cold Saturday evenings when I have wandered in late and been hit at the door with rich smells of roasting meat and cumin and garlic and I don’t know what and found Stematos and Apple-cheeked, not behind the bar, but at a small table in a dark corner, making eyes at each other while they sucked the left over lamb bones from some eastern stew.

I’m not sure where the diners for Greek Night usually come from or how close to the edge of profit or ruin this pub hangs. The boaty people generally lurk at the bar grumbling because Stematos won’t let them order a side of chips without a main course. They tell me it is because he is Greek and doesn’t understand British ways.

Last night I had a very different sort of dinner. I am back, temporarily at least, working for one of the Colleges in the University of Oxford. Like all the undergraduate Colleges we have a High Table reserved for members of the Senior Common Room and their guests. The food eaten at High Table is not very different from that eaten below on formal evenings (though far from the every day cafeteria flow). On High Table there is sometimes an extra course. And there is wine.

In case you are wondering, High Table really is elevated a step higher than the rest of the hall. The students, graduate and undergraduate, book in advance and queue up outside the hall clutching their bottles of wine. The door they enter by is next to the door we enter by, but a step below.  A team of staff members checks them in, urges them to fill up one table at a time, and opens their bottles.

Meanwhile the grownups gather in the Senior Common Room and drink, beginning as they mean to go on. When all the students are settled and the chef is ready, an announcement is made in the SCR: Ladies and Gentlemen, dinner is served. Unless there are Peers of the Realm present, in which case it is, of course, My Lords, Ladies and Gentlemen, dinner is served.

In the College where I now work the Principal sits at the centre, like Jesus at the Last Supper. All the students stand as she enters and all continue to stand as she bangs her gavel and pronounces grace: two Latin words (the seating layout and grace traditions vary from College to College).

There is a good deal of bustle as everyone is served. You can talk to whom you like for the first two courses, but it is very bad manners not to turn at the pudding course (not to be confused with dessert which is another matter, and room, altogether and only takes place on alternate evenings) to talk to the person on your other side. You must at all times hold both fork and knife in your hand during the main courses, and your fork and spoon during pudding. It is wise to keep an eye on the Principal during the final course, because when she has decided that you have had plenty of time to finish, whether or not you have, she will bang her gavel, everyone will stand, she will pronounce two more Latin words (the closing grace) and every one, ready or not, will file out.

But what I want to tell you is the really big difference between this whole carry on (to use a British term) and any dinner down the pub is not really the food.  Almost all the food I was served yesterday could have turned up in any institution in the country, including Her Majesty’s Prisons (okay, the first course was special, but the rest was basically sliced chicken, soggy stuffing, soggy potatoes, overcooked peas and worse).

But the words! The menu! Now that had class.  That was really, really grand. So I give you last night’s dinner. I nicked the menu to copy, just for you. Not chips down the pub but:

Parma Ham, Ricotta Cheese and Asparagus Rosettes with a Light Watercress Dressing. Served with Montana Marlborough 2006.

Apple and Chervil Sorbet

Ballotine of Poussin with an Artichoke, Borad Bean and Cumin Farcie, Fondant Potatoes, Corgettes, and Fresh Peas in Chervil Butter served with Cornas Noel Verset 1990.

Mixed Berries set in a Sauterne Jelly

Petits fours

You could just eat those words, couldn’t you?

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