Food In England by Dorothy Hartley

This is a magnificent book, written in 1953 by someone who learnt her cooking in English country kitchens in the days before widespread electricity and gas. It’s a combination of food history, recipes, general household advice, bits of personal memoir, opinion, and amusing or interesting quotes from old books.


Apart from the obvious stuff — what sauces to serve with mutton*, regional ways to cook a ham, the difference between Welsh, Scottish and West Riding Oatcakes — there are chapters about beekeeping, brewing, butter churns, as well as the chapters about the history of English food: what they ate at medieval feasts, how they stored food for long sea voyages. It really does conjure up a whole lost world: not just because of the foods which have fallen out of favour, like mutton or parsnip wine, but because the recipes pre-date a whole raft of exotic ingredients like aubergine and yoghurt.

It is endlessly quotable, but here are a few random extracts:

Blending Plants For ‘Tea’

It was during the acute rationing period that all these ‘teas’ were used in England to adulterate the imported teas.

A serviceable English ‘tea’ may be made with blackthorn for bulk, and sage, lemon balm, woodruff (the plant), and black-currant leaves for flavour. Do not omit at least three out of the four flavouring herbs, but let some flavour predominate. Thus, if currant and sage predominate, the tea will somewhat favour Ceylon; if the lemon balm predominates, it will be a more China cup; if the ‘woodruff’, it will have the smoky aroma of Darjeeling.

Eggs And Apple Savoury Or ‘Marigold Eggs’ 

This is Worcestershire and Oxfordshire, and probably very old.

Line a shallow dish with thin short crust, butter the bottom, and cover it with thinly sliced apples, and set it to bake until the apples are just cooked. Make a custard mixture of eggs beaten in milk, season strongly with pepper, salt and thyme, a very little chopped sage, and a lot of marigold petals (the common yellow marigold). Pour this savoury custard over the cooked apples and return it to the oven to bake until set. I was told it was served with roast pork, like Yorkshire pudding is served with roast beef (the sage and apple indicate this), but the marigold is more usually a cheese condiment.

Sheep’s Trotters With Oatmeal

Sheep’s trotters are the ceremonial part of the Bolton Wanderers football team dinners. Only the heavy types of mountain sheep, such as the Pennine Range sheep, can make this dish well. (I don’t think a sparrow could make a meal off a Welsh trotter, but in the larger breeds of sheep, the trotters are almost as meaty as a pig’s).

And I thought this was an appealing juxtaposition of headings:

Recipe Used for Whitewashing the White House at Washington


Whitewash as Made for an Anglesey Cottage

It’s a genuinely fascinating book both as history and gastronomy.

* Redcurrant jelly for valley breeds; barberry jelly for upland breeds; rowan jelly for Welsh and mountain mutton. ‘With the dull winter mutton of the garden lands, hot onion sauce is very comforting.’ Hot laver sauce (seaweed) and samphire with salt-marsh mutton. ‘Caper sauce is served with any of the sturdier types of garden mutton. In default of the imported caper, pickled nasturtium seeds are very good.’ 

Anyone But England by Mike Marqusee

Subtitle: An Outsider Looks at English Cricket. Mike Marqusee is American, although he has lived in the UK since 1971.

I guess it shouldn’t be taken for granted that an outsider will have a clearer view of cricket than someone brought up with it; it would hardly be surprising if an American who became a cricket fan was seduced by the tradition and history of it, the whole nostalgic, self-serving image cricket tends to have of itself. Paul Getty being the classic example.

But Marqusee is a left-winger who first started watching cricket during the West Indies tour of England in 1976, a series when the race and class tensions surrounding cricket were made more explicit than usual.

And so he is clearly angered, rather than attracted, by the gentility and clubbability and the bacon‑and‑egg ties. In fact, given that all that stuff is such a huge part of English cricket culture, it’s amazing that he became such a clearly devoted fan of the sport.

The result is a very pointed examination of the sins and hypocrisies of English cricket. They picked this brilliant quote for the front cover, from Test Match Special commentator Christopher Martin-Jenkins:

‘A very intelligent book, very cleverly written, with a lot that provokes thought. But I am uneasy about the way he has a go at just about everything that cricketers hold sacred’

I mean, what right-thinking person wouldn’t want to pick it up after reading that?

So it’s comparable to Derek Birley’s excellent A Social History of English Cricket in the way it provides a counterbalance to the game’s self-image; but with the focus mainly on the modern game and with rather more needle to it.

It makes uncomfortable reading at times for an English cricket fan. All those incidents which at the time seem like minor sideshows to the game itself: when you read about them all at once one after another, it starts to look pretty ugly.

I’m not sure that English cricket administrators and journalists are uniquely bad, mind you; I daresay if you subjected Australia or the West Indies or India to the same kind of inquisitorial examination, they would have their own different failings and embarrassments. But that’s a pretty weak defence.

I was reading the third edition, from 2004; one measure of my enjoyment is that when I finished I was left thinking, hmm, I wonder what Marqusee would have said about the things that have happened since: like England’s 2005 Ashes win. Or the IPL. Or Allen Stanford. So yeah, I recommend this book.

England vs Algeria: my diagnosis

England are suffering from the world’s biggest collective case of the yips.* It seems like the only explanation for how much worse these players become when they pull on an England shirt.


* Well, not quite the biggest: that must be the one that afflicts the All Blacks every four years at the Rugby World Cup.

England vs USA: my diagnosis

My overall feeling was that there just wasn’t a critical mass of players in that team whose game lends itself to composed possession football. Gerrard and Lampard can’t do it on their own.

So for example, I’m a big fan of Aaron Lennon, and I think he could be an important player for England at this tournament, but he’s not someone who you would immediately associate with patient, methodical build-up play. The same goes for SWP.

I thought the best period of control England had in the friendlies was in the second half of (I think) the Japan game, when Gerrard, Lampard and Joe Cole were all on together; the more of those kinds of players you have on the pitch, the more likely it is that there will be a pass available, the more likely you are to maintain possession.

Not that they have to be midfielders, of course: I think England missed Rio Ferdinand, not for his defending, but for his willingness to carry the ball out of defence and link up with the midfield. And of course Ashley Cole and Glen Johnson can help; so can the forwards, particularly Rooney. But I think the midfield was a problem. Given how well Rooney played alone up front for his club last season, I would have been tempted to play a 4-5-1 / 4-3-3 with Joe Cole taking Heskey’s place. Or just to play Joe Cole on the left wing.

The good news is that Gareth Barry should be back for the next game, which will help.

World Cup food blogging: USA

Well, that was a bit depressing: not so much because of the result, but the tendency to revert to long balls hoofed up the front, the lack of involvement of England’s wingers, the lack of controlled possession in midfield… all the usual England failings, in fact. Not to mention the further undermining of confidence in England’s goalkeepers. Ho hum.

However, World Cup food blogging must carry on. And so, my USA-themed food: cornbread and creole fried shrimp. The cornbread recipe I used was this one. Partially because it’s a British recipe, so I can weigh my ingredients rather than all that measuring quantities by the cup that American recipes do. And partially because it suggests substituting yoghurt for buttermilk, which is what I was planning to do anyway. I cut down the quantity of chillies slightly and cooked it in a pre-heated cast iron frying pan, though. It turned out rather nice, I must say:

The shrimp was a bit of an improvised recipe; I covered the prawns in a homemade creole-type seasoning mix — chopped thyme, dried oregano, paprika, crushed garlic, a dribble of pepper sauce, black pepper — and left for a couple of hours (the duration of the Nigeria-Argentina game, in fact).

Then I basically did the standard flour-egg-breadcrumb thing except with a mixture of cornmeal and cornstarch instead of breadcrumbs, and deep-fried them. Came out looking quite impressive:

But actually, although it tasted OK, the coating was a bit coarse and not very crispy. I don’t do a lot of deep-frying, so I don’t really know why… oil not hot enough? I think if I tried to do a cornmeal based coating again, I would use a wet batter rather than dry cornmeal coating. You live and learn.

I’d definitely do the cornbread again, though. Yummy.

So, roll on Algeria!

That letter

I was considering what it was about that weird political letter that made me put in the effort to blog it. I think it’s two things, really. The first is that we are increasingly surrounded by the mass produced and mechanically produced, and I find amateur, hand-made things more and more appealing. Of course, even a hundred years ago, people lived their lives surrounded by mass-produced stuff, but as technology improves, more and more things can be done by machines. It’s now rare to see a hand-painted shop sign, for example. Concert flyers, fanzines, even posters about lost cats, have usually been run up on someone’s computer, and have the generic similarity that comes from everyone having the same few typefaces and little idea about how best to use them.


It may seem slightly odd to be talking about the handmade in the context of a letter which is typewritten, photocopied, and stapled together, but I guess ‘hand made’ is sort of relative: each technology looks laborious and hands-on in the light of the next one. Hell, even things from the first generation of home printing look that way: I got a flash of nostalgia the other day because there was a sign in the optician’s window printed in Algerian.

The other thing about the letter which caught my attention, I think, was that slight whiff of paranoia to it. I think there’s an incredible pathos to these public displays of paranoia, not least because they are often superficially quite funny, like the killed by freemasons guy, or the graffiti that appeared at Charing Cross reading 

ARE THEY Putting
Nanotechnology in your
Food & Water?

ON Benefit
The Mentally

I once stumbled on an internet discussion forum for people who believed they were being spied on by the US government: it was about the saddest thing I’ve ever read, but the sheer bizarreness of the delusions just seemed to be crying out to be made a joke of.

My letter-writer isn’t quite so clearly suffering from paranoid delusions as those cases, but still, distributing anonymous political tracts by hand, asking people to pass them on, to write to the queen and ask her to dissolve the political system as the last chance to save the country: I’m pretty sure that inside this person’s head is not a happy place.

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A weird letter

A couple of days ago, this peculiar typewritten envelope was put through the door:

The ALL CAPS typewritten envelope reeks of ‘political nutjob’ and the red cross in the corner, for those of you who don’t know, is the English flag — the cross of St George, in fact — which during major football tournaments can be passed off as support for the England football team, but at other times tends to be a sign of racist views.

So I thought I had a pretty good idea of what the letter was going to be about, but in fact it was odder than that. For one thing, notice that the envelope starts with a poem of sorts:


Inside, we find 5½ photocopied pages stapled together, all still typewritten all-caps. From now on I’m going to start using lower-case , though, because  it’s easier to read. The writer introduces himself/herself:

Dear reader,
I introduce myself as a person who has lived in London for over 78 years since birth,
I have children, grand children, also great grandchildren,
I know of pre war years, fear free streets, open front doors and when life was simply happy for all.
I also know of the war years, and the Blitz,
also death from the skies, for like many others I was here, I also know of post war years and the happiness and joy of realising I had not died like many others in the bombings of London.
So in fact like many others I had great fear at the front of my life, my youth was taken from me,
but now in my old age once again like many others fear is deep within my final years, when my mind should be calm before I am called,
leaving behind my descendants and an England on a path to destruction,
many young as well as the majority of the old have curfew fear,
no we dont go out after dark its not safe, wrong places at wrong times,
it dousnt look very good does it.

Which is actually kind of moving. But what surprised me was the proposed solution: write to the Queen, and ask her to abolish political parties, let her know directly what your concerns are, so that she can abolish the corrupt political system that has brought us 86 years of Con/Lab government. Apparently that’s ‘the only solution to prevent the revolution that will destroy the England that you stand upon.’ Although frankly, a mass grass-roots movement to completely overthrow our political system doesn’t seem like a way to avoid revolution.

The whole thing is long and rambling and repeats itself; but the other bit that stands out is about getting police back on the streets:

As is well known there are few crime preventers upon the streets.
Ref, =coppers with legs=
Even few of those are without fear,
Because they have no means of protecting their own lives let alone the general public.
Few criminally intent go alone,
more often than not the minimum is two but the norm is about four =++,
the first thing that must be done is to reintroduce our preventers,
yes you have it, the bloke in blue with legs,
it can be done you know,
but he must be given the tools for the job.
The rapid fire sleeper dart pistol capable of a multi knock down,
not straight away of course, but who is going to kill a copper if they have a dart in their arse and sleepie byes follows a little later,
it is an ugly solution to an ugly problem but its the only one to deal with todays primitivity,
deaths will occur in instances of dart dose and alcohol combinations also drugs.
In these instances the arresting officer will be exonerated following coronas report.
In the light of the approaching recession these problems must be taken up before further degeneration takes place.
The following is a must. Stop and search vehicles for knives and guns.
Instant custodial sentence for those caught in possession, no trials.

I don’t why I’m sharing this with you really; it’s just an interesting thing. You can see the whole letter on Flickr here if you want.

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Going Dutch by Lisa Jardine

Full, slightly overblown title: Going Dutch: How England Plundered Holland’s Glory. This is a book about the relationship between England and Holland in the C17th. It’s an interesting period, of course: the C17th was Holland’s ‘Golden Age’, when the country was not only a wealthy global power but at the intellectual and especially artistic forefront of Europe. For me, the art is especially remarkable: there are three of the all-time greats in Rembrandt, Rubens and Vermeer, and a huge number of other important artists like Gerrit Dou, Pieter de Hooch, Frans Hals, Jan Steen, and Aelbert Cuyp.

Indeed, not only were the Dutch producing lots of their own great artists: they exported them over the channel; most notably but not only Anthony Van Dyck and Peter Lely, who between them seem to have painted most of the society portraits in England at the time. And of course the other most notable Anglo-Dutch connection was that by the end of the century, England had acquired a Dutch king: William of Orange.

That acquisition is usually referred to by the British as ‘The Glorious Revolution’, a name which combines just the right amounts of grandeur and vagueness to discourage too much analysis. But as Jardine makes clear, seen from an outside perspective, and especially perhaps from a Dutch perspective, it looks an awful lot like the Dutch conquest of England. William sailed across the channel with a fleet of 500 ships and 40,000 men, including 20,000 armed troops, marched on London and took power. The only reason it can be remembered as anything Glorious, rather than a bloody conquest or yet another Anglo-Dutch war, is that James II didn’t put up a fight. He was unpopular with just about everyone, not least because he was Catholic, and not really getting on with his own army, and he decided to flee rather than press the issue. Who knows what would have happened if he’d been a little more forceful and decisive.

This was, in some ways, a family affair: William and his wife Mary were both grandchildren of Charles I.* In fact they probably would have been most likely to succeed James II anyway, except that James’s wife, after a long string of miscarriages, unexpectedly produced a male baby and screwed everything up for the Oranges.

The strength of William-and-Mary’s claim to the throne made it easier for the English to accept them as joint monarch; Lisa Jardine’s books sets out to demonstrate that the tangled relationship between the Stuarts and the House of Orange is actually typical of a very strong cultural link between England and Holland throughout the C17th; that much of what became typically English, and much of the groundwork that enabled England to became a great power in the C18th and C19th, came from Holland.

She certainly successfully demonstrates an enormous amount of interaction between the two countries: in art, music, gardening, science and indeed socially. One of the most striking examples was the testing of Christian Huygens’s clock design on a British ship; Huygens had been corresponding with members of the Royal Society in London, who arranged for his new clock to be tested as a possible solution to the longtitude problem by a captain in the Royal Navy. On the very mission where he was testing this Dutch clock design, the captain plundered all the Dutch trading posts along the coast of Ghana, triggering the Second Anglo-Dutch War in the process. You might think this would interfere with relations between London and the Hague, but no, the correspondence carried on as though nothing had happened.

I suppose the only question a sceptical reader might have is whether you would find similar levels of influence and connection if you studied, say, Anglo-French relations at the same time. Is there a specific and exceptional connection between England and Holland at this period, or just the normal amount for two neighbouring countries? She seems pretty convincing to me, but I’m not in a position to judge.

* I’ll try to explain, but the same names keep coming up attached to different people, so you’ll need to concentrate. Charles I’s daughter Mary married William II of Orange; her son William is the one who became king of England. He, William III of Orange, married another Mary, the daughter of James II and thus the granddaughter of Charles I (and his own first cousin). So when he invaded England, he was deposing his uncle and father-in-law.

» The pictures are all details from the wedding portrait of the fourteen-year-old William to the nine-year-old Mary, painted in London by Anthony Van Dyck and now in the Rijksmuseum. Both because that picture seems appropriate and because there’s a high-quality reproduction of it in the Wikimedia Commons.

The Century of Revolution by Christopher Hill

The full title is The Century of Revolution, 1603-1714; i.e. the century in question is the longish C17th from the death of Queen Elizabeth to the death of Queen Anne. I guess most centuries are centuries of revolution somewhere, and in one way or another, but the C17th was the only time the English have had an actual literal political revolution. In fact we had two, or one and a half. The first one, in the 1640s, definitely was a revolution — with parliament deciding to put an axe through the king’s neck, and power resting with the army and so on — but is usually referred to as the ‘Civil War’. The second one is referred to, at least by the English, as ‘the Glorious Revolution’, but was really something else: half invasion, half coup. It’s probably a bit strong to describe it as the Dutch conquest of England, but it was probably something closer to that than a ‘revolution’.

I bought this book because I was aware of a gaping hole in my knowledge of British history when it came to this period; I mean, my historical knowledge is patchy anyway, but I’ve read quite a few books about the C18th and C19th, and some about the Tudors and the medieval period, whereas my knowledge of the C17th didn’t go much beyond the clichés; right but repulsive vs. wrong but wromantic, and all that. So I bought this book hoping to get an overview.

And it did provide that; if anything I think I should have gone for something slightly more specific. A book that covers a whole century of history in a few hundred pages is inevitably going to be a firehose of facts; an enormous amount to take in, and not much of the kind of detailed context and human interest that sugars the pill a bit when reading history. Hill divides the period up into four sections, and for each, he organises the material into  ‘Narrative of Events’, ‘Economics’, ‘Politics and Constitution’ and ‘Religion and Ideas’. Which works pretty well, and I do feel that I’ve been given a good grounding in what was going on. I don’t know how much of it I’ve retained, though. If I was really serious about trying to get a handle on the period, I should probably read it again. Which I don’t think is going to happen.

It’s an interesting period, though. The Elizabethans seem so distant and exotic; the Georgians are so modern in comparison, and that difference, that spectacular change, is what makes the C17th so fascinating. Constitutional power shifted from the monarch to Parliament, Cabinet appeared, the civil service started to develop, economic power shifted from the landed gentry to industrialists and merchants, the stock market was established, credit notes removed the need for all business to be done using discs of shiny metal, the religious monopoly of the Church of England was broken, Britain became a dominant naval power, agriculture was modernised. We became modern: or at least more modern than most.

» The photo of a Loyalist mural in Belfast was posted to Flickr by Benjamin Harrison and is used under a CC by-nc licence.

più alto, più rapido, più forte

Well, today the Capello era really gets started. After two months of blissfully fact-free speculation, conjecture, analysis and day-dreaming, we have to get down to the sordid reality of playing actual football.


Even after the match, it’ll be too soon to tell much really. Not that that’ll stop the pundits. Obviously they have to offer some kind of opinion—they have airtime or newsprint to fill—but it’s a rare bird indeed who truly manages to bear in mind that, as the health warning on financial advertising puts it, past performance is not necessarily indicative of future results.

It’s not just the professionals, of course; we all do it. If a team is playing brilliantly in November, we confidently predict that they’re going to win the league. Even over the micro-short term: if a match is 3-0 at half time, and one team has been dominant, you can guarantee that the pundits, even the Beeb’s collection of melancholic pessimists, will predict a scoreline of 5, 6, or 7 to nil. This despite the fact that the balance of play almost always swings back and forward during a match, and that if one team has been particularly good it’s much more likely that they’ll go off the boil a bit in the second half.

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Arglwydd, arwain trwy’r anialwch…

Wales beat England at rugby this afternoon, which (don’t tell my father) I quite enjoyed. I keenly support England when they’re playing South Africa, Australia, New Zealand or France, but against other teams I often find myself rooting for the opposition.

I guess it’s largely support for the underdog (today was Wales’s first win at Twickenham for 20 years, so I don’t think it’s too patronising to call them underdogs), but I never feel the same way when England play soccer. I don’t know why I don’t feel the same emotional connection to the rugby team, but there it is.

Of course if you’re English you have to have flexible sporting loyalties anyway: English during the World Cup but British during the Olympics. And it’s amazing how golf clubs suddenly become hotbeds of European solidarity during the Ryder Cup.

It always seems like it ought to be a healthy model of patriotism. Lots of overlapping loyalties which come to the fore at different times in different contexts, none of which insist that they have to be exclusive. And yet oddly enough British sports fans aren’t known for their flexible, easy-going tolerance and sensitivity to cultural nuance.

No Euro 2008 for us, then.

I had a bad feeling before the match, but I wasn’t expecting it to go quite the way it did. I was worried that playing a 4-5-1 and only needing a draw, England would defend deeper and deeper, as they so often have recently, only to be caught out by a goal too late to do anything about it.

And that was what happened, but only after we’d gone 2-0 down and clawed back to 2-2 again, so I’m not going to claim too much Mystic Meg kudos on the subject.

We can hardly say we deserved anything different, though: we just didn’t win enough football matches. And although they have looked pretty good in fits and spurts, they’ve also looked dreadful at times, especially last night. I appreciate that the Bridge-Lescott-Campbell-Richards back line was pretty much forced on McClaren, who was genuinely unlucky to have every one of his first choice strikers and defenders missing for such a crucial game, but geez they were crap.

So now we need a new manager. It’s a complete poisoned chalice of a job, of course, although the millions of pounds would help you grin and bear it.

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Malachi Stilt-Jack am I

There’s serious flooding in Yorkshire at the moment. I found this brilliant photo on Flickr:

Surfer on Chants Ave!, originally uploaded by Dave Foy.

The Daily Mail asks an unusually reasonable question on their front page today—why do we keep building new houses on flood plains? The trouble is that Britain is a small, rainy island; there are a limited number of sites available that aren’t flood risks. And we need new houses because property prices in England are insane.

It seems to me that there’s a simple answer: start building houses on stilts.

palafitos, originally uploaded by wciu.

I’m serious about this; or at least as serious as I can be without the architectural or engineering background to judge the practicalities or it. To build houses where you know they’re likely to get flooded may be reckless; to build them the same way as you would on high ground is just stupid.

Stilt houses on Pulau Mabul, originally uploaded by Vueltaa.

It’s not just stilts; how about watertight windows and doors? If you can’t keep the water away from the house, at least you can keep it from getting inside.

underwater restaurant

» underwater restaurant by udannlin, used under a Creative Commons by-nc-nd licence.

Two Lives by Vikram Seth

Two Lives is a biography of Seth’s great-uncle and aunt. They met in the 30s in Berlin when Shanti Seth was studying dentistry and took lodgings with the (Jewish) Caro family. Henny Caro was one of the daughters of the house and at the time was engaged to someone else; but after the war they eventually got married and lived together in London.

In one way of another their lives and those of their friends touch on many of the key historical moments of the C20th, but most centrally the war and the Holocaust. I’m reluctant to give too many details because I think he intentionally reveals them slowly.

Seth writes well, of course, and I found it an engaging enough book. I still slightly wonder whether it would have been published if it wasn’t written by a famous novelist, though. Not because it’s badly written or not worth reading, but because it seems to lack focus somewhat. He started writing it after the death of Henny, intending really to write a book just about his uncle but found a stash of letters, mainly between Henny and her German friends after the war. So Shanti’s story is based on direct interviews as an old man, while hers is pieced together from old letters, and they don’t quite mesh, somehow. In fact, considering they were married for several decades, there’s an odd feeling that their lives as told in this book don’t overlap that much.

I don’t know. I’m not sure that the whole is more than the sum of the parts. Mind you, those parts are are often very good: interesting, moving, well written.

(this post also appears in my ‘What I’ve been reading‘ section)

thoughts on England vs Spain

If Peter Crouch didn’t spend the first half hour of a game treating defenders to his best imitation of a mountaineer trying to swarm up the north face of the Eiger, he might be more likely to get decisions going in his favour later.

Shaun Wright-Phillips and Kieron Dyer have both still got the qualities that made them exciting when you first saw them, but I think we’re going to have to give up on the hope that one them will suddenly turn into Christiano Ronaldo.

I’m really sick of hearing Alan Hansen come out with some version of “Well, obviously they’re better than us at actually using a foot to control a ball, but maybe if we run around fast enough and relentlessly enough, we’ll distract them.” it’s not that I think he’s wrong, I just want it to be England who are, in that weirdly double-edged phrase, a ‘good technical side’. Of course technique isn’t enough on its own, and there are other quailities that go into making a successful sportsman, but there must be some degree of correlation between technical excellence and, you know, winning stuff.

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Soccer in the US

All the coverage about the position of soccer in the US, and whether Beckham moving there will have any impact, had me thinking. If his new home ground is only half-full, he’ll still be playing in front of about 13,000 fans. It’s true, that’s not very many compared to the Bernabéu or Old Trafford, but it’s a good crowd for a match in the Rugby Union Premiership and a miraculous one for county cricket.

Average attendances for soccer in the US (the 5th most popular team sport) are significantly higher than those for rugby in the UK (the 2nd most popular team sport). In fact, according to this list of sports attendances on Wikipedia, the English rugby premiership draws the biggest audiences of any non-soccer league in Europe, and it still only has an average attendance of 10,271; not just less than Major League Soccer, but less than the National Lacrosse League in the US.

Perhaps ‘why don’t Americans like soccer?’ is the wrong question. More interestingly: why does Europe only manage to support one team sport as a megabusiness while North America supports three or four? Why is Europe a sporting monoculture?

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Tender American sensibilities

Via bookofjoe; the OED and BBC are repeating their exercise of inviting the public to try and find earlier citations for various words. It’s a somewhat interesting idea but, having seen some of the last series: the results don’t make for riveting television.

What I found interesting was a couple of things from the Washington Post article on the subject. Firstly there’s this weirdly obsequious paragraph about the English:

The English have a special relationship with the language named for their land. From Chaucer to Shakespeare to Dickens, this country has given the world some of its most memorable literature. The spoken word is also revered here, and English debaters articulate even the most mundane ideas with remarkable music and vocabulary. Americans puzzle over Britons keeping their spare “tyre” in the “boot” of their car, but most admit that they sound clever doing it.

The spoken word is ‘revered’ in England? You what? And what do simple regional variations like boot/trunk have to do with anything?

The other thing that I found odd was this:

Before 1976, “marital aids” were known by less genteel names, and using them, along with other more sexually adventurous behavior, became “kinky” in 1959. Some terms on the list are too naughty to be printed here. But the Oxford editors are as interested in their X-rated beginnings as they are in “identity theft,” “spiv” (a sharply dressed hustler), “mucky pup” (a messy child) and “prat” (a fool or a jerk).

I was surprised that the BBC would pick unprintable words for a TV show about word origins, so I checked out the list. The only possibilities seem to be ‘dog’s bollocks’ and ‘tosser’. Or ‘dogging’, I suppose. Can it really be true that an apparently grown-up newspaper like the Washington Post has such tender, innocent readers that they would be offended by seeing the word ‘bollocks’ in print?

I suppose it might be. I remember seeing some footage of Emma Thompson on Leno where she starts telling an anecdote about doing some filming with a horse which, hilariously, had an erection, and Leno having to cut her off because the e word was apparently just too strong for a late-night chat show. Perhaps that’s what our ‘special relationship with the language’ consists of: knob jokes.

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More ethnic food slurs

I was watching Antiques Roadshow at the weekend and some chap brought in an C18th* English silver sauce boat. The expert got excited because it was a rare early example; apparently before that point English food rarely had sauces but it was about then that some people started employing French cooks.

So far, reasonable enough and entirely plausible. But his explanation for why it should be so was that English ingredients were so good that they could be served plain and unadorned, whereas the French had developed a cuisine based around rich sauces in order to disguise the poor quality of the food. I’ve also heard almost exactly the same explanation for the heavy use of spices in Indian food and (English!) Tudor food: to disguise the flavour of meat that might have gone bad without refrigeration.

The trouble is, it’s obviously patronising crap. Bending over backwards to be fair: yes, with really good quality ingredients you can afford to just present them simply, and it’s a mistake to mess about with them too much. And yes, Britain has some very good quality basic ingredients; the rain makes it a great place to produce lamb, beef and dairy products, there’s some excellent seafood and good game, and some great fruit and veg like apples and asparagus and so on. For some of these products, the best quality stuff may have been better than the French equivalent.

But in a country where most people were peasants who were having a good year if they didn’t go hungry, I just don’t believe that the tiny elite who could afford to eat rich sauces and elaborate food were eating bad quality ingredients. That applies to C18th France, Tudor England and Mughal India. And with the Tudor refrigeration argument, I have to point out that most meat needs to be hung for a while – for several weeks, in the case of beef – to improve the flavour. It doesn’t exactly turn putrescent overnight, even without a refrigerator. The Indian climate presumably accelerates decay, but I still don’t believe that obtaining fresh meat was a problem for those with money. Conversely, however good the best British beef is, there must have been plenty of people in England eating all the crappy stuff that the aristos rejected.

It’s such a bizarre bit of unthinking snobbery to suggest that, just because British food is traditionally plain, anyone who cooks something more elaborate must have something to hide. It’s like suggesting that the Italians cook pizza to disguise the poor quality of their bread. A few decades ago, when few British people had any experience of all that fancy foreign muck, I can imagine the argument seemed plausible. But now we all eat Indian and Thai and Chinese and French and Italian food by choice, you’d think it would have become obvious that people like the flavour of spices and that people like rich sauces. These things don’t need any special justification.

I know I’m probably spending too much time on a trivial point, but I’m always baffled when I hear people confidently repeat arguments that must surely ring false even somewhere in their own heads.


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the clean, dry corpse of a parrot

From Robert Graves’ Goodbye to All That:

24 June, 1915, Versailles. This afternoon we had a cricket match, officers v. sergeants, in an enclosure between some houses out of observation from the enemy. Our front line is three-quarters of a mile away. I made top score, 24; the bat was a bit of a rafter, the ball a piece of rag tied with string; and the wicket a parrot-cage with the clean, dry corpse of a parrot inside. Machine gun fire broke up the match.

I read the Graves at school, but I’d forgotten that little gem. I found it in A Social History of English Cricket by Derek Birley, a book which I’m finding more entertaining than the slightly dry title would suggest. It would also make an excellent choice for the list of books to explain England, since all the social changes of the past 250 years have been reflected in the development of cricket. The class system is especially well represented. Although it does contain an awful lot of cricket anecdotes which might be a bit impenetrable to our notional foreigner.

Thinking about Englishness lead me to re-read My Five Cambridge Friends by Yuri Modin, who was the KGB handler of the Cambridge Five. It really is the most extraordinary story. Having started with an Englishman playing cricket behind the lines in WWI, let’s end with another posh chap maintaining his Englishness in difficult circumstances:

I know that Philby didn’t much care for the character in The Human Factor who is supposed to be modelled on him, a whining fool who ekes out his days in a Moscow hovel. His own circumstances were totally different, what with his huge apartment, his magnificent view, the copies of The Times, Le Monde and the Herald Tribune to which he had subscribed, the videotapes of cricket test matches and the pots of Cooper’s Oxford marmalade sent from London.

We really are caricatures of ourselves sometimes.

Still thinking about books to explain the UK

Well I’ve still been thinking, on and off, about that list of ten books to explain the UK. Which is an interesting exercise.

I quickly decided to eliminate Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland. Not that I have anything against the Celtic Fringe, but it was complicated enough dealing with Englishness. There’s no difficulty in finding ten books all of which have some characteristically English quality to them; it’s getting some kind of balance to them as a list. For example Brideshead Revisited, Crome Yellow, Love in a Cold Climate, Summer Lightning, The Complete Saki and The Importance of Being Ernest are all in their way very English*, but they don’t exactly represent a very broad range of Englishnesses. And then there are cases like Gerard Manley Hopkins. He’s possibly my favourite poet, but as a Jesuit priest and radical poetic innovator I can hardly claim him as representative or typical.

I’m probably over-analysing again.

One thing that becomes apparent is that I don’t read enough contemporary fiction. I mean, over the years I have read quite a lot of it, but not a lot of books from the past few decades seem to be springing to mind at the moment.

I find myself drawn to books by and about English people but set abroad – A Passage to India, My Family and Other Animals, Our Man In Havana, Into The Heart of Borneo. Perhaps because the Englishness of the characters is set into relief. The flipside would be books about England written by foreigners: Voltaire, Conrad, Henry James, T. S. Eliot, even Bill Bryson.

I’m still thinking.

* yes, I do know that Wilde was Irish

Just not cricket

What a complete farce. I just hope the England players and management have the sense to keep their heads down and stay out of the argument as much as possible. Let Pakistan and the ICC sort it out between themselves.

EDIT: Simon Barnes is good on this.

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