Saturday, July 30, 2016


Whenever I cook dinner, I prefer the same meal – salmon in a sweet chilli marinade, baby potatoes, kale, tomato, cucumber, peppers stuffed with feta cheese, and pickled beetroot. It is a refreshing dish with lots of taste, satisfying my unchecked theory that a meal becomes healthier when you see more colours on the plate.

Despite the British ingredients, my dinner is not a standard British dish. As a country, we like our full English breakfasts, steak and chips, tikka masalas and so on, but our dishes are not seen as the healthiest, and our palates are not seen as the widest, so trying something else means turning away from that part of our national identity.

This is not a plea to change what you eat for the good of us all, as I am not the sort of person that would say that. However, others have tried.

To make Italy a more self-sufficient country, the dictator Benito Mussolini raised the costs of importing grain in order to wean his people off pasta, and onto rice. This act chimed with an avant-garde art movement, whose designs on the Italian diet ingratiated themselves with Mussolini, keeping them in business while crackdowns on other movements were taking hold across Europe.

The Futurist movement, founded in 1909 by chief “aeropainter” Filippo Tommaso Marinetti, took inspiration from the modernity and industry that was cutting into the world – cities, planes, cars, speed, technology, violence. They took in all forms of art, and influenced the Art Deco, Surrealist and Dadaist movements. In Britain, Futurist influence is seen in the Vorticists, whose emphasis on bold lines and movement inspired the dazzle-painted ships of the First World War.

The futurists had no place for pasta. For them, it was a heavy food, an addiction to nostalgia and tradition, holding the Italian people back. Marinetti went as far as to advocate sustenance coming from pills, freeing food to be redesigned as an art form, to excite and re-arrange the senses. However, some Futurist dishes seemed to forget the concept of taste:

* “Chicken Fiat” involved a chicken being roasted with a handful of ball bearings inside it – once the steel flavour was absorbed, it was served with a garnish of whipped cream.
* A “Declaration of Love Dinner,” with a starter of antipasto that is to be admired, but not eaten – “she” will then be invited to look at her reflection in the plate of the next course.
* A “Heroic Winter Dinner,” designed for pilots as a preparation for entering combat, one course of which involved perfectly-cut cubes of raw beef, which had an electric current run through them before being soaked in rum, cognac and vermouth for twenty-four hours; they are then served on a bed of red pepper, black pepper and snow, with each cube chewed for exactly one minute, blowing on a trumpet between cubes.
* “Diabolical Roses” – a red rose, battered and deep-fried.
* “Elasticake,” a ball of puff pastry filled with red zabaglione and a stick of liquorice, with a lid made from half a prune.

These dishes speak for themselves – they are the sort of thing you may try once, just to say you tried. There is a whole book of them, published by Marinetti in 1932, and probably one of the funniest Christmas presents I have ever received.
While the bizarre choice of ingredients brings Heston Blumenthal to mind, his fusion of foods is in the interest of creating new tastes, while the Futurists were not really chefs, their dishes rejected outright by the Italian people. Perhaps, the lesson to be learned is not to play with your food, and don’t be fascistic about it either.

Friday, July 22, 2016


Right now, fewer than three hundred DeLorean DMC-12 cars remain on Britain’s roads, out of a total of 8,583 made in Belfast from 1981 to 1983. However, with its gull-wing doors and stainless steel finish, and its place in popular culture secured as the mobile time machine in the “Back to the Future” films, the car inspires businesses and fan clubs to carry on servicing it, and import them from the United States, with a US company beginning to make new cars using leftover parts from Belfast.
Meanwhile, the Austin Ambassador (1982-84), an update of the wedge-shaped Princess range of 1975, that used parts borrowed from other cars, was made as a stop-gap until the Austin Montego was ready. According to, out of 43,427 cars sold in the UK, there are SEVENTEEN left, including those registered as off the road.
The Ambassador holds a strong place in my childhood, filled with images of “Back to the Future”. With rakish lines that still feel modern, the future was meant to look like this but, unfortunately, the DeLorean did the better job. We had a second-hand, silver 1.7 litre model, looking to me like a family-sized time machine, with a spongy red interior, ripe for being thrown up on by a small child.
We had our Ambassador until it was scrapped, due to familiar complaints of rust and poor build quality from British Leyland, the byword for industrial disputes in the 1970s and 80s. Even when they still worked, they weren’t made desirable enough – manual gearboxes only went up to four gears, and higher-equipped models still didn’t come with a rev counter, so people who could afford not to listen to their engine had to carry on as before.
The last Ambassador, given to the British Motor Industry Heritage Trust, was sold at auction in 2003, to make space for other cars. It was later bought out of storage by a club of enthusiasts, determined to make a symbol of a bad time in the British car industry worth remembering, on its own terms.

Why care? Ask the blobfish. As the general mascot of the Ugly Animal Preservation Society, and winner of a 2013 contest for the ugliest animal on Earth 2013, this endangered species depends on humanity harnessing the power of irony to save it. Turning the blobfish’s ugliness into an advantage highlights how we tend to save only the cutest species, even if the reproductive powers of some, like the Giant Panda, make that job very difficult.
It is not morally acceptable to pick and choose which animals should be saved - you do it because you should, and because you don’t want to be the one that has to say there are none left. Likewise, for those that still enjoy remembering what the British car industry used to make, the Austin Ambassador deserves to be preserved as much as the DeLorean – in fact, with the Ambassador being the much rarer car, doesn’t that make it more desirable now?

Saturday, July 16, 2016


I know it is the twenty-first century, but that didn’t stop me from buying a typewriter. My nephew recently bought a second-hand one – of course, there are no new typewriters anymore – which reminded me of the one we once had at home, before computers overran it over twenty years ago. Looking at examples on eBay, I wound up bidding on a grey and brown Litton Imperial Mercury, a grand name for what used to be a very ordinary machine.
Once I make room for it, how useful will I be when using it? The challenge will be not to make a mistake, and to resist throwing the paper away to start again. If I slip on the wrong key, I should find a way of justifying the mistake, and see where that takes me. Or, I could just let rip:
“The quick brown fox jumped over the lazy dog, and ran to Currys to steal a food blender. He was arrested, and was made to speak the alphabet in a loud, clear voice. ‘A’, the fox said, followed by ‘B,’ then ‘C.’ By ‘J,’ the fox broke. ‘All right, I confess! The kids wanted smoothies, but they are so expensive to buy…’”
Anyway, buying a typewriter also means I can hear that particular clacking of keys and metal rods, a background to life and industry, that is just not heard anymore. This is not nostalgia, as I have grown up with computers, just as vinyl records are mostly being sold to people that grew up with CDs and MP3s. Old technology, if it works, does not have to be rendered obsolete or dead.
I imagine receiving a letter typed on a typewriter will mean more than one printed from a computer: there is still an element of craft on the part of a writer, not as much as writing by hand, but enough of a change to make a difference to the reader. Anyone receiving a letter from me will now know what to expect.
From this, you might expect using a typewriter would give me an ASMR (Autonomous Sensory Meridian Response), the curious, dubious abbreviation now given to the tingling in the back of your head or neck you get in response to a sensory stimulus of some sort.
I only discovered a name has been given to this feeling when, after researching the typewriter I just bought, I found YouTube videos consisting solely of people typing letters, just for the viewer to sense the sound, and the physical act, of the typing. I’m sure it won’t be so great if you had the machine in front of you, engaged in a duel to harness the written word to create a work of great meaning, all the while trying to spell properly. For me, the feeling of release may only come when I stop using it.
Having said that, I am looking forward to getting started!
Meanwhile, the fox has been convicted of theft, and is currently awaiting sentencing.

Saturday, July 9, 2016


I am going to mention Quorn quite a bit here but, as will become clear, this is not an endorsement – for a start, I like Linda McCartney sausages as well.

I don’t really eat red meat. I’m not a vegetarian either – I just prefer chicken or fish most of the time. Instead, I am more likely to eat Quorn, now preferring its meat-ish taste to what it is imitating. In fact, when I do eat actual red meat, I do get a bit surprised – “oh, so that’s what they’re copying.”
Choosing not to eat meat is an ethical and lifestyle choice, and so is choosing to eat something that looks like meat, but Quorn was developed not to satisfy this sort of demand – in the 1960s, there was a fear the world would run short on protein-rich food within twenty years.
The British chemical giant ICI had already developed a process named “Pruteen,” where bacterial single cell protein was turned into animal feed, so the head of Rank Hovis MacDougall, J. Arthur Rank, instructed his company’s research laboratory to look into converting starch, left over from bread production, to make a protein for human consumption. (As Rank was also the UK’s biggest film producer at the time, he could also have produced an effective biochemical weapon from the jokes in “Carry On Camping.”)
Quorn went on sale in 1985, in a joint effort between Rank and ICI, becoming very successful. The carbon footprint produced in Quorn production is eighty per cent less than beef, and free-range eggs are used as a binding agent. For what is a type of fungi, the ingenuity in producing products that taste like meat, in addition to its appearance, cannot be denied. However, I still cannot get over how you can only buy Quorn that is made to look like meat, almost confirming that is the only way people will buy it.

The furthest it has strayed from this is the Quorn “Roast,” or “Family Roast,” a concoction resembling a giant sausage that tastes like it is trying to tap into the collective experience, in its customers, of what a “roast” is, regardless of whether it is turkey, or chicken, or anything else – for that reason, it may be the best product they sell!
I just feel Quorn have missed a trick by using their protein to develop food that, while still tasting like meat, could look however they wish, bringing in even more people based on curiosity. I have had the idea of “Quorn Blue Pyramids” stuck in my head for ages, but while I cannot make that myself, Quorn can have this idea for free. Much like Birds Eye have contorted potatoes into faces, dinosaurs and so on for children, perhaps Quorn could try the same.
Having said all that, I am having fish for dinner today, so I will have to think more about this later.

Saturday, July 2, 2016


I see myself taking up the saxophone at some point. It’s a weird thing for most people to say, but to me, it’s almost inevitable. In fact, this is a warning to my family.
If you liked “The Goon Show,” “The Simpsons,” and David Bowie’s music since childhood, it will have been instilled into you that saxophones are expressive, outrageous, and cool. This is before you even get to jazz, where the objective appears, sometimes, to blow your aching soul through a brass tube.
When Adolphe Sax patented his woodwind instrument a hundred and sixty years ago last Tuesday, they were intended for use in marching bands and orchestras. Sax would later suffer from lip cancer for a five-year period, years before his invention would use the blues to capture that pain.
People have always found ways of getting that bit more out of the saxophone, which changed to suit, its keys moving from the initial oboe-inspired layout to make playing both easier and faster. Its position between conventional brass and woodwind instruments also meant new orchestral pieces could be written using saxophones to blend these sounds together.
As jazz and pop music developed to incorporate its particular sound, the sax was seemingly the “next” instrument to include – once you have your guitars, keyboard and drums, the sax is the next easiest instrument to learn, before you get into the vagaries of finger positioning on the violin, and sorting out your embouchure on a trumpet.
However, you cannot deny that anyone playing a saxophone does look good. You are not stood or sat “behind” the instrument, you can bring it into your body, or hold it out, and its sound is not usually put in the “background” of anything – if you are playing, you are out in front, as people want to hear it.
I know I would have years of practice ahead of me to make all of this sound true, but expressing yourself means you have to start expressing yourself. I shouldn’t mind, however, if all I get to begin are squeaks and squawks, as some people did pretty well out of that.
In a 1983 interview, David Bowie talked about becoming a working musician by playing the saxophone, seeing this as his way out of London, and into America, particularly the 1960s West Coast, Beat Generation counterculture with which he associated the instrument’s sound. However:
“…When I started working with it… I found I didn’t have a very good relationship with the sax and that lasted right the way through. We’re sort of pretty embittered with each other. It lies there waiting for me to touch it. It defies me to... I really have to go through traumas to get anything out of it that anything to do with what I want it to say. So it’s not a steady relationship; it’s not a good one. It really is a love / hate relationship.”
Either Bowie or his sax needed to back off.