Graham Higgins Illustration - Literate Graffiti Dept.

Archive for April, 2011


April 26, 2011

25-4-11 Heat, holiday reading and The Hooligan


Nearly four months into the year we’re returning to our parked car and allowing a couple of minutes for the oven heat inside to disperse, driving around with the car windows open enough to make a draught.
Over the weekend, sorting out some of the folders of accumulated jpgs that have replaced the traditional shoe-box full of processed snaps as the repository of people, moments and places you can’t quite place, the monitor screen is the rear-view mirror reflecting the snowy gunmetal landscape only a couple of months behind us.
The imagination can conjure visions, leap and swerve and take you to the edge of the expressible but it can’t quite bridge the gap between the Winter morning when you try to grasp that in a few weeks you’ll be wilting in heat and remembering to take precautions against sunlight, or these days when we lounge on the lawn and try to recall the chill and snow-muffled silence mere weeks ago.

Last week in Aldeburgh, the Suffolk coastal village best known for its association with Benjamin Britten and Peter Pears, the Pet Shop Boys of English choral music, there was time and weather to lounge on the shingle beach; excuse enough to trawl the local bookshops for a holiday paperback.
I’m sorry I didn’t succumb to impulse and pick up “The Uses And Abuses Of Art History” from a £1-basket outside the second-hand shop. It was a familiar hover; the price made it almost sinful to pass over, balanced against the thought that I may not in fact find time to read it despite my good intentions and that I could easily come back to collect it if it was still on my mind in an hour or so.
It was temporarily pushed from my mind by a drop-in to the small but well-stocked Aldeburgh Bookshop where I found Charles Freeman’s ‘A New History Of Early Christianity’.
In the holiday season of choccy eggs and bunnies and miscellaneous retellings of the popular folk-narrative of The Crucifixion, it’s refreshing to be reminded of the historical, social, political, cultural and not least the physical landscape in which the recorded events took place and the factions which wrestled for authority to shape and tell the story over subsequent decades and centuries. Whatever the Gospels have to say about the Divine elements of the story, the written canon version is the editorial product of entirely human rivalry and schism, competing accounts and interpretations. The history is so well-researched that I shan’t even attempt a précis of the book when I’ve finished reading it but I’d recommend it as a dense historical whodunnit whatever your faith-affiliation.

Last week I was also presented with a new toy, a handmade Reed Little Hooligan banjolele, built around a tuneable hand-drum the ukuluthier chanced on in eBay. It has a moveable muting pad on the underside so that it can become a usefully strident busking instrument in the street or, as I now have it, barely audible in the next room while I try to get to grips with the triple-strum. For right-handers this is a thumb-and-index-finger down-down-up flick. Left-handers will strike the strings in reverse order on a standard-strung uke and it seems my best chance of recreating the strum is to use the index with the middle finger replacing the thumb-stroke.
I have to be reminded regularly that the rest of the world is largely populated with non-strummers for whom this kind of paragraph is indecipherable gratuitous geekery. My own skills remain so stubbornly at intermediate busker level that I assume real musicians will recognise and I hope sympathise with my attempts to achieve enough competence to join in without getting in the way.


April 15, 2011

13-4-11 Nettle Soup

13-4-11 Nettle Soup

Making use of the recent bright days, Spring-clearing the garden, Herself does a dogged job of weeding and clearing and those bits that require skill and judgement, buying in and planting out new shrubs and flowers, pruning or uprooting the old. Winter leaves are hoovered off the gravelled stretches, path-slabs swept.
My contributions are the broad-brush unskilled tasks: shifting barrowloads of undistributed gravel from the back of the house to the gravel-beds, cajoling the mower up and down the lawn through the damp and mossy turfy tufts, hoiking up deep-rooted defunct shrubs, tackling the burgeoning nettle-beds…
Herself and I stand in mutual puzzlement at our respective patience for her time in the garden and mine the kitchen, and about half a garden-refuse sack into nettle clearance I remembered my first encounter with Nettle Soup in my Foundation Year of art college, served by Mary Wandrausch, a ceramics tutor at Farnham who specialised in trad English slipware technique and who rented rooms in her Hardyesque farmhouse to students.
Mary lived like a back-to-the-land hippy – often barefoot, kaftan-clad and rattling with chunky handmade bead necklaces –  but she was clearly from an older honourable tradition of bohemianism. She’d been tutored in life-drawing by Mervyn Peake (‘We all lusted after Mervyn’) and reminisced cheerfully about days spent nude on remote Greek beaches, before the islands were on the standard tourist map.
At the meal table she would place a hand on your thigh as she turned to share some erudite factoid or salacious aside. She didn’t linger; it wasn’t creepy, though you did wonder whether at some point she might fall upon you like a big cat and haul you off to her boudoir. Though she was chronologically decades apart from us, she was an exotic earth-spirit and her appetite for the sensual gave the prospect of a pounce an element of intrigue. If you were to have your Older Woman experience, she would certainly have provided a memorable one, so there was probably a current of suppressed wishful-thinking in the air. In reality it remained a matter of conjecture whether the memory would be more terrifying or instructive on balance; both, probably, and awfully good fun, my dear.
So… my memory is of a twilight Summer evening warm enough for open doors to admit birdsong from the surrounding meadow and woodland, interior light dim enough to call for candles at the scrubbed wood farmhouse table and nettle soup with tear-apart homemade bread from slip-glaze patterned tableware.
I don’t really recall anything very much about the soup except that it seemed very Mary to harvest whatever was local and seasonal and to know a traditional recipe to make it edible. Another memory-snapshot has her receiving a puffball fungus the size of your head brought back by another friend as a trophy from a woodland walk, which she greeted with the delight and attention an extravagant bouquet might envy. It arrived at table soon after, sautéed in butter and dusted with nutmeg and fresh-cut herbs.
Given the company and the setting and the contrast with my home-life in commuter dormitory Woking, the fact that I found myself eating soup made from nettles was a mere contributory detail.
Slow-forward nearly four decades and I’m grubbing out and piling up a stack of stingers in the garden and – Old Gods Bless Thee, Mary Wandrausch – I’m again prompted to think about preparing the tetchy leaves for the table.
On the nutritional properties of the leaf, this from
Healing Wise, by the splendidly-named Susun Weed: “Very high calcium, magnesium; high iron, potassium, zinc, Vitamin B’s and A; niacin, protein, vitamin C, D and K. Excellent for the liver, low back, and anemia.”
However, although I can suggest how to prepare a soup, it’s a method rather than a recipe and don’t get too excited. You’d expect all that aggressive uric acid to bring a tart zing to the dish but what you get is spinachy colour and texture and a flavour you might expect from grass-cuttings (don’t try these as a substitute; cows’ complicated digestive tracts are made from sterner stuff than ours).
So, for a mineral and fibre-rich soup in which the headline ingredient’s main contribution is its novelty…
First, carefully uproot enough nettle stems to fill a plastic supermarket carrier bag and reflect that already you score recycling-points.
Like spinach, nettles reduce to a green slurry when boiled or steamed, so don’t stint yourself on quantity.
It’s a good idea to tip the whole stems into a sink of water and stir them around with a gloved hand. It gives them a rinse and softens the leaves a little, but don’t be fooled into thinking they’ve capitulated and that they aren’t still waiting for an opportunity to get you. Wear gloves while you pick the leaves off the stems – you can pinch off the top cluster – and drop them into a colander to drain.
Now the work begins to get as much flavour into the dish as you can. it’ll have to fight its way through the nettles later, so there are no fixed quantities; it’s all ‘to taste’.
My experiment began with finely-diced potato, onion and steamed carrot fried in oil in the bottom of the soup-pan; garlic, salt and black pepper added later and then a cup or two of water ready for a couple of veg stock cubes and some All Purpose Seasoning I found in an Asian supermarket.
By this stage I was still expecting the nettles to have some kind of distinctive flavour, but you can pile in as much intensity as you like at this stage. Chinese 5-spice, or Lebanese 7-spice, or Jerk seasoning – if you experiment with this soup you might try a madras curry paste at this stage and a quantity of chick-peas after the next to create a saag-chana dall variation.
Now add a quantity of water, enough to douse the nettle leaves. Empty them in carefully and tamp them down with a wooden spoon. When they’ve all wilted into the stock, the sting is gone and it’s time to apply the blending wand. I added some quark and milk to make cream of nettle soup and we discovered recently that leftover cooked basmati rice under the blender gives a good low-fat cream effect.
That’s pretty much it. Unlike wild garlic dishes, where the leaves have a distinctive, delicate flavour which repays the care taken to preserve it, nettle soup scores high on nutrition and worthiness but we didn’t rush out to the garden again for another crop of delicious weeds.


April 9, 2011

9-4-11 H&S cross’d buns

9-4-11 H&S cross’d buns


It’s a Health and Safety issue. In the old days we might have called it a concern or a topic, a question or a matter. Now we have issues, which we address. Oh issue, what shall be our resolution?

You might be forgiven for thinking that H&S is shorthand for Health And Safety Gone Mad; the phrases are pretty much interchangeable. I’ve been asked, for instance, to furnish a Health And Safety Risk Assessment for a library drawing session. I acknowledged that a sharpened pencil could present a risk of accidental impalement or indeed be converted by the malicious into an offensive weapon, though I noted that in my experience this had never occurred. The erasers supplied by the library could present a choking-risk. A sufficiently motivated child might unscrew the blade in a pencil-sharpener, presenting a whole range of possible unfortunate consequences. Paper-cuts could not be ruled out, though again this has never happened… so far.

Rather like the sin-assessment required in preparation for confession, a thorough survey of possible risk reveals another terra nova in Health And Safety: the minefield. It’s a Health And Safety Minefield, quite unsettling enough to provoke the disorder known in the field as the Health And Safety Nightmare.

The nightmare is that an accident might happen. In the enquiry that must happen in that event, there are two possible outcomes: (a) the risk has been overlooked (‘with cavalier disregard’) or (b) it has been noted, and is thus ‘an accident waiting to happen’, another way of saying that it didn’t happen until it did, in which case those responsible must claim that they will learn from the incident, while injured parties and their advocates are given the opportunity to observe that this is ‘too little, too late.’ Lessons must be learned, steps taken, measures put in place.

This week I discovered that there are are issues around hot-cross buns. Not issues around the strict accuracy of the trade description ‘hot’; I will assume that a good lawyer would defend the nomenclature as a simple generic classification observed by the baked confectionary industry and allied trades. No, no, this is a Health And Safety issue.

In the week before the Easter holidays, R.E. naturally turns to The Easter Story and associated customs and traditions. I’d thought that it might be worth bringing cross-buns in as a ‘multi-sensory resource’ [tick relevant box] in a brief history of the seasonal bakeware.

There was a worksheet based on a related comprehension-text, outlining linked superstitions: buns baked on Good Friday will not ‘go off’ during the subsequent year (I thought this made it sound like a suspect device); buns baked on this day are said to help people recover from illness ‘if they eat them’; if taken on a ship, they’re thought to prevent shipwreck; buns hung in the kitchen ensure that all bread baked will turn out perfectly; anyone sharing a bun will have friendship for the following year (End Of Ecclesiastical Year Notice: Failure to supply and share buns on the date specified may result in a Billy No-Mates Order).

The name ‘hot-cross buns’ was first recorded in 1773 – though sliced bread supplanted buns as the measure of excellence against which all human ingenuity is measured around 1928.

It’s thought that buns with a cross on them were eaten in Saxon times, when the cross represented the quarters of the moon and honoured the goddess Eostre, from which we get the name Easter, an early example of theological imperialism, though one I might not have raised with Year 5.

So I mentioned this to another teacher, who looked suddenly guarded when I had the foresight to ask to ask whether there were any children with notified allergies. Procedure advises that the staff member with responsibility for keeping the special dietary needs register must be consulted, but she was not in school. I asked at the office, who directed me to the Deputy Head. She welcomed the Incoming Bun warning, told me to hold fire and said that parents would be texted as a precaution; a useful exercise since the database may need to be updated.

Thursday’s R.E. was displaced by an extended games session, making use of a fine day. By the time the children were back in class and changed out of games kit there was time to show a couple of short vids outlining the Easter Story. Friday, there was no official R.E. window, and since the timetable was filled with end-of-term activities there was no time to introduce and divide the buns I’d kept in my briefcase overnight. In retrospect, had any child keeled over as a result of reckless unauthorised distribution of the contentious bakeware, an expired sell-by date would be clear evidence of culpable negligence.

I learn lessons from this and will put measures in place to prevent this simple error in future. Classes will not be exposed to the risk of buns, crossed or otherwise, not on my watch.

The community can sleep that much more soundly, safe in the knowledge that we are taking steps to eradicate the possibility of all accidents in compliance with initiatives to raise awareness of the dangerous environment we monitor on a day-to-day basis.



April 8, 2011

Time passes…

31-3-11 New Look

The updated look of the blog is called Gravel and it’s a result of (a) a lot of work by the designer – I’ve had a peer at the code and retired, baffled, (b) a series of queries about why I opted for the generic Kubrick-style theme (laziness; timidity about messing with a workable default; technical deficiency) and (c) a spare hour or so yesterday to work through several pages of alternatives and a reckless have-a-go curiosity that might just as easily have wrecked the joint.
Apart from the displaced and orphaned ‘Dept.’  in the header – hence my brief encounter with the HTML – it looks OK to me and I’m still reeling at the fact that it’s worked at all. When I’m trying to make sense of the most basic computer-related tasks I often think of the slab-prodding apes in the opening scenes of 2001: A Space Odyssey. In my experience of DIY, the chances are about even that you learn something or the slab falls on you.

Digital processes are too abstract for me. I’m fine with Photoshop; it does things on screen that I can relate to tangible processes in the real world, with the distinct advantage that you can retrieve yourself from dubious decisions at a click. I’ve played around with on-screen music composition but not enough to produce anything more than reasonable Lego modelling with the bricks provided; the ukulele on the other hand, even played upside-down to accommodate my left-handedness, continues to occupy cumulative hours.
My friend Ernie Hudson has recently put a vid on YouTube, a deceptively simple-looking guitar part for White Boy Lost In The Blues. His years of picking up the guitar have resulted in a more-than-the-sum-of-its-parts versatility that emerges fluent as handwriting. I’ve tried to play the same chords and licks and only arrived at more-or-less technical competence on occasions.
At some point which so far I’ve managed to delay I’ll try to put up acceptable intermediate-busker versions of some of my own songs.

As I write it’s April 3rd.Tomorrow I have a week in a local school, a call back after an unexpected afternoon’s work there. This is always a tricky waiting-time, going in to an unknown class with an unpredictable range of ability and social skills and aptitudes.

…and this is April 8th. Better post this and regroup for April…