Wednesday, 29 June 2011

London in the Summer Time...

... means having to be prepared for scorching sunshine and torrential rain in the same day. At least it (famously) gives us all something to talk about. 

I guess living in a city famous for fog, drizzle and grey makes people even more keen to make the most of the sunshine when we get it.

Sailing and sandcastle building on the Thames.

And makes even the familiar sights (surrounded by apparently omnipresent building work at the moment) look a bit different.

St Paul's, framed by cranes.

I've even been making more summer-y food; last night was beetroot and broad bean risotto. The beans and the beetroot were the prettiest colours.

Despite being delicious and the most fantastic shade of bright pink, I couldn't take a decent picture and the finished dish looks a bit like it might appeal more to zombies than to real humans.

But please trust me, it was very good.

Beetroot and Broad Bean Risotto

2 beetroot, preferably with greens still attached
1 bulb fresh garlic
1 onion
250g risotto rice (I tend to use arborio)
Splash of vermouth or white wine (not essential)
2 pints vegetable stock, kept warm
Handful of broad beans, podded and shelled
2 tbsp Quark (or cream, yoghurt or cream cheese)
Sprinkle of hard cheese

(Quantities are pretty arbitrary for this recipe... I always make far more risotto than the recipe recommends and how much stock I use always varies! Ditto the amount of veg and cheese - add as much or little as you like.)

Remove the beetroot greens, chop and put to one side. Chop the beetroot into bite-size chunks and roast in a hot oven with a splash of oil/spray of Fry Lite for about 30 minutes until they're soft and darkening at the edges.

Soften the onion with some oil in a large saucepan and add the garlic. Once they're beginning to brown, add the rice and stir well 'til it's all oily. Spolsh in the vermouth/white wine and cook until it's mostly evaporated away.

Add a ladle full of stock and the beetroot. Stir and watch whilst it all turns pink! Add the rest of the stock, a ladle full at a time, waiting for each one to be absorbed before adding the next. Keep going 'til the rice is cooked but not mushy - it'll probably take about 30 minutes, and you might not need all the stock.

Stir in the broad beans, chopped beet greens and then the dairy ingredients. Taste and add anything else you might like. Enjoy!

Oh, and one more summer-y activity. We did some bowling. 

I'm not very good with throwing (or catching or hitting for that matter) and was quite amused by this picture. It looks like I was explaining to the ball where I wanted it to go, in case it wasn't apparent from my actions...

Friday, 24 June 2011

An English Urban Garden.

I don't have naturally green fingers. I mean, I can keep a house plant alive and have managed cress on a flannel, but gardening doesn't come naturally to me.

But I have a garden. Obviously, because I live in London, it's postage-stamp sized - if you put a picnic rug down, the garden vanishes. But it's mine and I want to use it and make it pretty.

I'm aiming for a 'lawn'. It's a work in progress. I put down grass seed in April to fill in some gaps and... it didn't rain for three months. In England! No rain! The 'lawn' resembled the Serengeti. But then I went on holiday and apparently it rained non-stop here. I came back to this:

Much more grassier!

Unfortunately I don't have a lawn mower, just a strimmer. (I did actually trim it with kitchen scissors once. Not recommended.) I'm therefore not going to show you after-pictures as it's a bit uneven. But it's better, honestly.

And apparently tastes good.

When we bought the flat, the garden looked something like this:

(Sorry for the rubbish photo - old camera phone)

The majority of it was covered in the most wonky, badly laid concrete imaginable. I was firmly convinced there must be a body under it as there was no aesthetic reason anyone could have wanted that in their garden otherwise!

I smashed the concrete up a while back. Oddly enough, I did this whilst using just a claw hammer and a little purple bucket. This is also not recommended.

There was no body under there. Mostly a relief.

Since then I've been sporadically planting things, and each spring it looks a little bit better. I've even had some flowers this year!

And made it into a place I can actually spend some time. (When it's not raining...)

The sunflowers are out the front, because it's sunnier there. But look how big they've got! Still a wee way to go before they tower over the house and I can climb up them to find giants and golden chickens, but I remain optimistic.

Thursday, 23 June 2011

Neither sacred or profane?

Having covered a bit of gender politics with the feminism, I decided to add some more potential controversy to my holiday reading with Philip Pullman's The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ. The only other Pullman I'd read was his Northern Lights Trilogy, which was enjoyable and different but which I haven't wanted to re-read. I've never quite managed to put my finger on why... Suggestions welcome!

So, the premise of the book is that Jesus had a twin, Christ. Jesus is a 'good' man and a preacher but doesn't do any miracles - it's all chinese whispers and spin - whilst his brother Christ documents his life and adds retrospectively insightful details to make Jesus seem more historically significant and powerful, with the intent of using the documents to found the church. 

It's an interesting concept, especially with the obvious explanation of the resurrection that comes hand in hand with a world in which Jesus was an identical twin. Pullman's writing style is consistent with his earlier works, whilst also being evocative of the popular translations of the New Testament many people would be familiar with. 

But I was left unsure of the point of the book. It's short, there's no additional characterisation or historical detail, so it didn't really work for me purely as a novel. But it's too long to just be playing with ideas. It felt, to me, like a vehicle for Pullman to share his theories about religion, the church, truth and history. These are very interesting, and I think I'd agree with a lot of them, but putting them in the mouths, or heads, of these rather unreliable and faintly-sketched characters didn't really do them justice. I have a lot of opinions about religion (sometimes too many, poor Nick tells me after listening to a lengthy rant) but this book didn't leave me feeling angry, inspired or... well... anything.

Having created his twin-Jesus, Pullman was free to add or subtract whatever details he wanted in the world of his novel. But I felt this world wasn't consistent. Mary's conception is strongly hinted to be only-too human and not at all miraculous, but then angels do appear to the shepherds to tell them to go hunt out the baby. As a child, Christ (rather than Jesus) performs miracles, but the biblical miracles of the adult Jesus are all placebo or gossip. Here, the resurrection is obviously explained, but then Christ is visited throughout the novel by a mysterious stranger who 'guides' him and who seems to be some sort of dark angel. This was God, but this wasn't, apparently arbitrarily.

I found it surprising that the book was so keen to prove that Jesus wasn't the son of God in some places, but then to raise the question of spiritual or supernatural powers in others. Even Jesus, in the garden of Gethsemene, is left questioning the existence of God, and instead finding solace in the beauty of the 'real' world as opposed to the spiritual one.

In some ways, I suppose this is consistent with Pullman's views on spirituality. In Northern Lights, God is real but aged and senile and organised religion is a tool misused for corruption, control and personal gain. It's therefore not surprising that the basic principles of the Good Man Jesus are sound and... well... good, whilst the desire to create the organised religion (which Pullman so dislikes) that motivates Scoundrel Christ is negative and misled by the shadowy angel/demon figure.

Obviously, neither an unreliable narrative or leaving the reader to draw their own conclusions are bad things. Stories have their own meaning, without everything having to be spelt out. Perhaps Pullman was trying to create a modern-day parable? But so much of this story already exists - with so much baggage from years of interpretation and retelling - that this needed to be either dramatically new and different or cleverly interwoven and insightful to stand on its own. And I'm not sure it accomplishes either. 

Pullman's speaking at the London Literature Festival at the end of the month. I'm interested to see if hearing him discuss it changes how I feel about the book.

The Times and  Guardian reviews, for anyone interested in what cleverer people thought!

I don't have any more reading pictures, so this is the roses in my garden in advance of a garden-themed post coming soon. Including a sunflower update!

Tuesday, 21 June 2011

Extreme Moderation

All things in moderation (including moderation, of course!) generally seems a sensible life-rule. I shall therefore be glad that my recent kitchen-adventures have gone from one (healthy, virtuous) extreme to... the complete other.

Health and Virtue

Courgette fritters with salad

I made this up to use some courgettes languishing in the fridge - grated courgette, a little bit of strong cheese, an egg and some seasoning all mixed together and formed into fritters, then fried (in Fry Light of course - this is the healthy option) and popped under the grill as they didn't seem flippable. Very delicious, especially mingling with the grated beetroot in the salad.

Not that I like to feel guilt about eating any sort of cookies, but with these you can feel virtuous(ish) even after eating the whole batch, and they don't taste any different to 'normal' cookies.

She recommends taking them out before they're done as they'll keep cooking out of the oven, but I think mine needed a little bit more baking to be perfect. Luckily I like soft cookies! I might also try wholemeal flour next time as I find it tends to absorb more moisture.

These were also good made into a sort of strawberry shortcake thing. With Quark, not cream, to continue The Health.

The Complete Other

Cheese-Gnocchi-Courgette Bake

(There were a lot of courgettes in the fridge!) 

This could easily have been a healthier option, but I was in a heavy-handed butterandcheese mood. 

I saw this gnocchi recipe on Domestic Sluttery a while back and really wanted to try it - I'd always though that gnocchi were one of those horribly hard and fiddly things to make, but they're really not. A bit time-consuming, so probably better to make the night before and keep in the fridge, but they tasted perfect and used up my glut of potatoes (think they'd been breeding with the courgettes).

I made the gnocchi and boiled them as per the recipe, whilst softening the leeks slowly with butter and garlic, made a cheese sauce and stirred it all together with some halved cherry tomatoes. A bit more cheese sprinkled on top and under the grill 'til it browned. Perfect Sunday night sofa food.

Allie brought this recipe to my attention and I think it might be a new favourite. It really is the easiest thing to make, partly because it contains no actual chocolate so you haven't got to faff about with bain-maries or burning it in the microwave, and partly because you can do it all in one pan!

They're also delicious. This is the second batch I've made in a week as Nick took them into work for his birthday and they requested a second lot!

Thursday, 16 June 2011

I'm a feminist. And so's my boyfriend...

One of my favourite holiday preparations is planning my reading list. (One of my least favourite is packing. This is probably why I have been known to arrive places with more books than knickers...) 

Over the last few trips I've decided that my ideal holiday reading selection includes; something a bit pulpy, preferably involving zombies; something a bit literary, that I can really concentrate on; something a bit filthy, because that's where your mind tends to wander in the sunshine (Just me? Oh...); and something a bit feminist, I think to try and counter the inevitable bikini/body/get-a-tan-or-not/where's-my-life-going thoughts that holidays inspire. (Just me again? Surely not...)

So, for the Ibiza trip my feminist book was Female Chauvinist Pigs: Women and the Rise of Raunch Culture, by Ariel Levy.

It's an interesting and thought provoking read. Levy's argument is that there is a distance between how women are viewed as sexy and actually being sexual, and that this disconnect is creating a situation where girls are growing up out of touch with their sexuality and real desires, because they are only presented with one 'acceptable' view of sexuality. Her argument is that, despite being able to have as much or as little sex with whoever we please, this very narrow definition of sexy is as limiting and objectifying as any of the gender stereotypes of the past. 

She also wrote an article for The Independent that's a pretty good summary of the book.

Personally? I can agree with what she's saying and a lot of her points, especially about having to take on 'masculine' traits to be successful in certain industries and women who degenerate their own sex by claiming to be 'one of the boys' rather than being who they are; a woman with the skills to be successful in her chosen field regardless of her sex.

(There's some interesting stuff on masculine/feminine traits, the nature/nurture thing and the research that's been done into it in another book (Dubrovnik 2010's holiday feminism) Natasha Walter's Living Dolls: The Return of Sexism.)

But... as I often find with this sort of book, I can't believe it's as all-pervasive as she suggests. Levy's based in the US and her arguments are obviously built around her experiences there. The book is also five years old, so maybe we have regained some ground in recent years? All I know is that, whilst some aspects of what she says rang very true for me, a lot of them didn't. Maybe I've just been fortunate enough to know a lot of women (and men!) who are happy to question the version of sex and beauty sold to us in adverts and magazines, and to draw their own conclusions. 

There's still a lots of, and far too much, inequality out there. But I'm optimistic.

The word 'feminist' is a tricky one, I know. But Sarah Bunting has written the most powerful explanation of why I think it's important to use it, and why I wouldn't hesitate to apply it to myself and pretty much everyone I know.

feminism n (1895) 1 : the theory of the political, economic, and social equality of the sexes 2: organized activity on behalf of women's rights and interests — feminist n or adj — feministic adj
Above, the dictionary definition of feminism — the entire dictionary definition of feminism. It is quite straightforward and concise. If you believe in, support, look fondly on, hope for, and/or work towards equality of the sexes, you are a feminist. 
Yes, you are. 
The definition of feminism does not ask for two forms of photo ID. It does not care what you look like. It does not care what color skin you have, or whether that skin is clear, or how much you weigh, or what you do with your hair. You can bite your nails, or you can get them done once a week. You can spend two hours on your makeup, or five minutes, or the time it takes to find a Chapstick without any lint sticking to it. You can rock a cord mini, or khakis, or a sari, and you can layer all three. The definition of feminism does not include a mandatory leg-hair check; wax on, wax off, whatever you want. If you believe in, support, look fondly on, hope for, and/or work towards equality of the sexes, you are a feminist. 
Yes, you are. 
The definition of feminism does not mention a membership fee or a graduated tax or "…unless you got your phone turned off by mistake." Rockefellers, the homeless, bad credit, no credit, no problem. If you believe in, support, look fondly on, hope for, and/or work towards equality of the sexes, you are a feminist. 
Yes, you are. 
The definition of feminism does not require a diploma or other proof of graduation. It is not reserved for those who teach women's studies classes, or to those who majored in women's studies, or to those who graduated from college, or to those who graduated from high school, or to those who graduated from Brownie to Girl Scout. It doesn't care if you went to Princeton or the school of hard knocks. You can have a PhD, or a GED, or a degree in mixology, or a library card, or all of the above, or none of the above. You don't have to write a twenty-page paper on Valerie Solanas's use of satire in The S.C.U.M. Manifesto, and if you do write it, you don't have to get better than a C-plus on it. You can really believe math is hard, or you can teach math. You don't have to take a test to get in. You don't have to speak English. If you believe in, support, look fondly on, hope for, and/or work towards equality of the sexes, you are a feminist. 
Yes, you are. 
The definition of feminism is not an insurance policy; it doesn't exclude anyone based on age. It doesn't have a "you must be this tall to ride the ride" sign on it anywhere. It doesn't specify how you get from place to place, so whether you use or a walker or a stroller or a skateboard or a carpool, if you believe in, support, look fondly on, hope for, and/or work towards equality of the sexes, you are a feminist. 
Yes, you are. 
The definition of feminism does not tell you how to vote or what to think. You can vote Republican or Libertarian or Socialist or "I like that guy's hair." You can bag voting entirely. You can believe whatever you like about child-care subsidies, drafting women, fiscal accountability, Anita Hill, environmental law, property taxes, Ann Coulter, interventionist politics, soft money, gay marriage, tort reform, decriminalization of marijuana, gun control, affirmative action, and why that pothole at the end of the street still isn't fixed. You can exist wherever on the choice continuum you feel comfortable. You can feel ambivalent about Hillary Clinton. You can like the ERA in theory, but dread getting drafted in practice. The definition does not stipulate any of that. The definition does not stipulate anything at all, except itself. If you believe in, support, look fondly on, hope for, and/or work towards equality of the sexes, you are a feminist. 
Yes, you are. 
The definition of feminism does not judge your lifestyle. You like girls, you like boys, doesn't matter. You eat meat, you don't eat meat, you don't eat meat or dairy, you don't eat fast food, doesn't matter. You can get married, and you can change your name or keep the one your parents gave you, doesn't matter. You can have kids, you can stay home with them or not, you can hate kids, doesn't matter. You can stay a virgin or you can boink everyone in sight, doesn't matter. It's not in the definition. If you believe in, support, look fondly on, hope for, and/or work towards equality of the sexes, you are a feminist. 
Yes, you are. 
Yes. You are. You are a feminist. If you believe in, support, look fondly on, hope for, and/or work towards equality of the sexes, you are a feminist. Period. It's more complicated than that — of course it is. And yet…it's exactly that simple. It has nothing to do with your sexual preference or your sense of humor or your fashion sense or your charitable donations, or what pronouns you use in official correspondence, or whether you think Andrea Dworkin is full of crap, or how often you read Bust or Ms. — or, actually, whether you've got a vagina. In the end, it's not about that. It is about political, economic, and social equality of the sexes, and it is about claiming that definition on its own terms, instead of qualifying it because you don't want anyone to think that you don't shave your pits. It is about saying that you are a feminist and just letting the statement sit there, instead of feeling a compulsion to modify it immediately with "but not, you know, that kind of feminist" because you don't want to come off all Angry Girl. It is about understanding that liking Oprah and Chanel doesn't make you a "bad" feminist — that only "liking" the wage gap makes you a "bad" feminist, because "bad" does not enter into the definition of feminism. It is about knowing that, if folks can't grab a dictionary and see for themselves that the entry for "feminism" doesn't say anything about hating men or chick flicks or any of that crap, it's their problem. 
It is about knowing that a woman is the equal of a man in art, at work, and under the law, whether you say it out loud or not — but for God's sake start saying it out loud already. You are a feminist. 
I am a feminist too. Look it up.

Original link here.

These issues seem to be in the news a lot at the moment, arising from the slut walk phenomenon, the discussions following Ken Clarke's rape comment (which Sally at Sow and Sew has covered a lot more eloquently than I could ever dream of), and then the concept of benevolent sexism being discussed on Radio Four last night

I don't know the answers, but I know it's important to think about. And I'm off to do just that, probably whilst riding my (man's) bike to meet my boyfriend for supper, to which I'll wear a (girly) frock. Because I can.

(And because it's his birthday. Happy Birthday best-beloved!)

Holiday reading

Monday, 13 June 2011

In lands beyond the sea: Ibiza and a lizard.

Apologies for the radio silence; I've just spent the week in Ibiza at a very beautiful wedding and did my best to avoid the interweb the whole time!

Ibiza Old Town, and a certain gentleman in a very stylish hat...

A little bit of our villa.

Sunset at Cafe del Mar. Apparently this is Ibiza-Compulsory. 

Lots of beautiful colours and flowers everywhere.

My outfit, and the hat from a previous post!

Ice-cream loving lizard!

Reviews of my holiday reading to come, including the interesting results of trying to read feminist theory when you're distracted by ladies like this wandering around....