Sunday, 23 December 2007

Brussels Spruts

It must be Christmas Eve. Those little green things called spruts or sprots have appeared on the greengrocery shopping list. It occurred to me as I tried to interpret my own writing in the greengrocers (thereby holding up the 30 people trying to nudge their way past down it’s narrow aisle) that I didn’t even know why Brussels Sprouts were so called. The sprout bit I could understand since they grow anew every Christmas but why blame the Belgians? Their forerunners (according to Wikipedia) were eaten in Ancient Rome which could do much to account for the Decline and Fall whilst their popularity in Southern Netherlands could explain Hitler’s success there.

In our household Jo quite likes sprouts and will occasionally treat herself to an out of date net of them at the supermarket. I can just about bear them and Richard hates them to the extent that he won’t even have them on his plate – as has been the case with all folk under twenty since sprits first appeared massed next to Tiny Tim’s Christmas Goose. Not the refusing to have the on the plate bit – that’s definitely modern youth. We all disliked them as children but in the good old days children (who had to be seen and not heard) had to eat what was on their plate and had no choice about what ended up there. Bring back the birch and going to bed without supper, says I...

A sprout producer (I won’t call him a farmer because he was pictured wearing a white coat and living in a factory as opposed to chewing a piece of grass whilst leaning against a tractor in muddy wellies) was on television the other day. He said one of the reasons we don’t like sprouts was because in the ‘old days’ they came into the shops ungraded by size and when they were cooked some became overcooked and some undercooked. Now the little sprits all run around on conveyor belts, falling off at different intervals so that we cannot make this disastrous mistake. It seemed a strange excuse to me – after all, we never measured the other vegetables when we cut them into pieces to boil them. I cannot, for example, recall sorting carrot chunks or peas or grading cabbage leaves for thickness.

One consolation is we only have to eat four of them – that, according to a leading nutritionist constitutes a serving. Must tell Jo that if she does the dishing out tomorrow... They are, like all distasteful things, good for us.

“Brussels sprouts are full of nutrients and contain significant amounts of vitamin C. In fact, gram for gram, Brussels sprouts contain nearly fifty percent more vitamin C than an orange. Just four to six Brussels sprouts contain the adult daily requirement for vitamin C. Like other cruciferous vegetables, Brussels sprouts contain nitrogen compounds called indoles, known for their cancer fighting properties. Brussels sprouts are also a good source of folate, potassium, vitamin K, fibre and beta carotene. Nutritional information per serving (4 sprouts): 33 kcal, 7 g carbohydrate, 0 g fat, 3 g protein, 3 g fibre “

There are even websites devoted to make us enjoy the Brussels/Brussel Sprout like This includes a recipe – don’t they know the traditional English way to cook everything is to bung it in a pan of water and leave it for half an hour? Mind you, since their recipe involves olive oil, lemon juice and garlic I suppose you could make most things palatable with that lot. Another site ( uses hot pepper flakes, nutmeg, garlic and parmesan cheese to hide the flavour.

It is worth noting that even the wonderful set of creations done by bored chefs and including these little sheepses fails to include the sprout.

I think we need to just come out and admit it – those dreaded sprouts taste pretty awful. Still, it’s Christmas, we mustn’t enjoy ourselves too much. Baa Huumbug.

Saturday, 3 November 2007

Book Dedications

This article is dedicated to my brother, Graham Barry, on the basis that one cannot divorce one's brother - unless you are a girl from Alabama - and are unlikely to disown him, disinherit him, and in my case even diss him; and for all the kindnesses he does me and all the ways in which he has enriched my life, blah de blah de blah....

In the early days of book dedications the author's primary purpose was to flatter and gratify his (there being no female authors in those days) rich and the famous patron. Horace's "Odes" and Virgil's "Georgics" were both dedicated to their wealthy patron Maecaenas. One of the most spectacular of this type of dedication can be found in the King James Bible, in which God is thanked for the best day's work that he ever did in putting James I on the throne. "Great and manifold were the blessings, most dread Sovereign, which Almighty God, the father of all mercies, bestowed upon the people of England, when first he sent Your Majesty's Royal Person to rule and reign over us." And so on for about a thousand grovelling words. At least Paul Scarron was honest when he wrote his 1653 dedication of "Don Japhet of Armenia" to the French King - I will try to convince your Majesty that you would do no great wrong, if you did me a little good... Thirty years later Don Josef de la Vega was back to good old-fashioned grovelling, dedicating "The Triumphs of the Eagle" - To the Unvanquished John the Third, King of Poland, grand duke of Lithuania, Russia, Prussia, Masowia, Samogitia, Livonia, Kiev, Podolia, Podlasie, Smolensk, Volhynia, etc, etc, ... a power which makes one blind by its brilliant rays... Accept, your majesty, these rhetorical flowers which my mind dedicates to your Greatness with affection and humility....

Thomas Chandler Haliburton devoted six pages of his humorous work "The Letter-bag of the Great Western", published in 1840, to Lord John Russell though 'you have never seen, and probably never heard of, the author' and despite believing 'Dedications are mendacious effusions...'

Some of my favourites are the incomprehensible ones like that of Holly Fox in "This Way Up" - For Mum, in loving memory of the levitating donkey, a chimney brush in the next street, and the fresh egg wars. Or Audrey Thomas in "Goodbye Harold (Good Luck)" - To Claire, who doesn't laugh (too hard) when I look for the iron in the fridge. And Anne McCaffrey's "The Tower and the Hive" - to Graham Hamilton For blue Jaguars and Eddie Stobbart Hauliers.

An article by John Sutherland in The Guardian (Fruday 9yth Jwne 2006) commented on the dangers of dedications to wives, sweethearts, etc...." Peter Carey - two-time Booker winner and one-time divorcee - is reportedly asking his Australian publishers to remove the dedications (four, by my count) to the ex-Mrs Carey, Alison Summers, from future editions of his work. His current novel, Theft, dwells on the "evisceration" the central character undergoes at the hands of the divorce lawyers. "Alison Summers, with all my love" was the dedication to Oscar and Lucinda. He may have toyed with "Alison Summers: with a sizeable proportion of my cash" for Theft."

As far back as 1913 book dedications were a subject of enough interest to occasion the publication of a book by Mary Elizabeth Brown. She didn't dedicate it to anyone! The Contents List shows that dedications have changed little over the last century.

The love lives of many authors can be traced through their successive dedications and I suspect many an author has regretted the 'lifelong' love he had declared in an early work. Few are like Brian Moore who managed to dedicate novel after novel to the same wife - now adding "For Jean, comme d'habitude," F Scott Fitzgerald was another who managed to dedicate more than one work to the same wife - Once again to Zelda. Robert B. Parker dedicated all his books to his wife of 50 years, Joan, but at least he does it poetically as for example in "Hugger Mugger" - Joan: the ocean's roar, a thousand drums.

Nevertheless, most people continue to dedicate to their partners, often adding, like Denis Healey to Edna, "...of course." Some go on to use the cliché about 'without whose help, etc...' and this has become such a standard that one American author is said to have revolted against it by dedicating the work to his family "but for whom it would have been finished in half the time....".

More significant are the dedications to deceased parents or children, particularly the latter. American naturalist Edwin Way Teale, author of "Autumn Across America", lost his son at the age of 18 in the Second World War. The book was dedicated - to David who traveled with us in our hearts. A sentiment which will be echoed by all bereaved parents.

Friends are named in many modern books like Anne McCaffrey's "Freedom's Landing" -- This book is dedicated to the memory of a special fan/friend, Judy Voros. Hope heaven has chocolate (but it must!). But I have always wondered how you choose which friends to put in a dedication. McCaffrey solved the problem by writing so many books she ran out of people to whom she could dedicate them. Nevertheless her "Freedom's Ransom" apologised in advance if she had forgotten anyone when she listed her on-line chatroom friends. At one time the writer's typist and proofreader came in for thanks but nowadays it is the person who provides the computing support. For a full list of the McCaffrey dedications see

Helen Hanff is another who chose a friend in "Underfoot in Show Business". The dedication reads - The day I finished the book, I celebrated by phoning Maxine in Hollywood. 'Do you want to hear the dedication?' I asked her. 'Go ahead,' said Maxine. So I read it to her: To all the stagestruck kids who ever have, or ever will, set out to crash the theatre. 'What do you think of it?' I asked. 'It's much too sentimental,' said Maxine. 'Why don't you just dedicate it to me?' So what the hell: This book is for Maxine.

Admiring but not knowing the dedicatee can be equally problematic. Charlotte Bronte dedicated "Jane Eyre" to William Thackeray. She must have been the only person in literary England who did not know that Thackeray (like Mr Rochester) was married to a woman who had gone insane. This wasn't helped when it came to light that Thackeray had just published a novel in which a scheming governess attempts to seduce her employer. The Nineteenth Century paparazzi were quick to assume that "Currer Bell" had worked for Thackeray and the two had been lovers.

It is not only books that were dedicated and Beethoven's Eroica Symphony was famously dedicated to Napoleon until he fell out with Bonaparte's machinations and marches across Europe and scratched it out.

Pets and other animals are popular dedicatees and whilst the dedication of Colonel Buchanan's 1926 work "Sahara" to his camel (Feri n'Gashi, Only a camel, But steel true and Great of Heart) might be an obvious choice some are less so as shown by Larry McMurtry in "The Desert Rose" - To Leslie, for the use of her goat. Helen M Winslow dedicated "Concerning Cats" to - The "Pretty Lady" who never betrayed a secret, broke a promise, or proved an unfaithful friend; who had all the virtues and none of the failings of her sex.

Inanimate objects rarely make it into dedications but appropriately Cornell Woolrich dedicated "The Bride Wore Black" to - Remington Portable No. NC69411

But the simple ones remain the best like Agatha Christie's in her second novel - To all those who lead monotonous lives; and Geoffrey Chaucer's in "A Treatise on the Astrolabe" - To Litel Lowis my sone.... purpose to teche thee a certayn nombre of conclusions pertayning to this same instrument.

In the early 1900s there were various annual editions of "The Complete Cynic" by Oliver Herford, Ethel Watts Mumford, and Addison Mizner, each with its own dedciation. I like the one for the 1907 edition -

To Foolish-wise and Wisely-gay
Of whate'er country they may be,
We dedicate this little gem
By Ollie, Addison and Me,
In hopes they'll buy in massive lots
And help us boil our little pots.

(A potboiler is a piece of literary rubbish created for the sole purpose of making money quickly or to maintain a steady income for the artist - artistic values being subordinated to saleability.)

Robert Beckman, author of books on investment, similarly acknowledged the value of his readers in one of his modern works with this less subtle dedication - to those persons whose actions are deflected by thought along with the few remaining people of intelligence who are still able to read and who do sometimes purchase books.

We finish with a suggested dedication from a fellow blogger... - to my Mum, you might not want to read this, it gets gory and sexual in the middle parts of the book.

And another that never quite got published; from the proposed "Telephone Triage Protocols for Nursing Assistants" - To the family of Steven Hofford, words cannot express my deepest regret. Please accept this training manual as proof that I will not rest until every nursing assistant understands that patients rarely make jokes about life-threatening emergencies over the telephone.

(This last quotation is dedicated to Timothy McSweeney, whose backpack has a pocket designed for loaves of bread -

Monday, 29 October 2007

Have you got my lighter?

One of the four most popular phrases in our household is "Have you got my lighter?" The person asking is usually me but it can also be used by my partner on occasions.

Just as many things on my computer disappear into cyberspace never to emerge, so the great universal forces have a habit of absorbing certain material objects. Most notable of these objects is of course the second sock of a pair which gets swallowed by the washing machine or somewhere else in the washing process. Sets of keys are equally likely to find a fourth dimensional home as are the remote controls for televisions, video recorders and DVD players. The tops from ball point pens are the only plastic I know which not only bio-degrades but can do so in the twinkling of an eye. But in our household it is lighters that have the most magical properties.

Such is the scale of their disappearance that I am tempted to contact the Police. I have already been in touch with the Liverpool Echo but they spurned the item as not being newsworthy. Perhaps they are correct . After all, their Editor has the task of setting such disappearances against the bad news of occasional horrific murders and the good news of being City of Culture 2008. But surely someone should take an interest in where these lighters are going. Could they be heading for some enormous terrorist stockpile to be dropped by plane upon some unsuspecting factory like a Second World War incendiary? Or is there such a black market in lighters that one cannot pass the end of a dark alley in Liverpool's red light district without hearing the sound of 'Psst. Wanna buy a lighter?'

I contacted the local Search and Rescue buy they said lighters were not within their remit. No one, it seems, cares about my losses.

Interest was expressed by Flying Saucer Review - the international journal established in 1955 and read regularly by Prince Edinburgh. They rejected my proposed article but sent around a little green man with a hand-held machine that looked like a Geiger counter. He chuckled gleefully and spent ages in the utility room, emerging from there with 32 odd socks and an 1890s corset - don't ask! When asked about lighters he just chuckled again and went into the fridge never to emerge. I have written to Buckingham Palace to ask if HRH is prepared to send a search party for the little green man.

Nowadays when I go shopping and ask for a lighter the shop assistant usually asks "Disposable or refillable". Since they are rarely around long enough to be refilled and are quite capable of disposing of themselves I tend to just shrug and "Whatever!"

Sunday, 28 October 2007

The ‘Good Old Days’

It is a sad reflection on our modern society that we so often have to hide behind our computer identities. In the ‘good old days’ (and, yes, I know they weren’t really good for most people) if two folk of like mind met they would swap cartes de visites and one would call on the other for tea. Cartes de visites were those lovely miniature photos that people had made when they went to the High Street photographer. After a few meetings under the formal conventions of the ‘never more than half an hour’ visit during ‘receiving’ time in the mid-afternoon a greater friendship might develop and much less formal contact become possible.

Nowadays we dare not even let people know our e-mail address for fear of what they might get up to. I have found an apparently like-minded and pleasant woman who lives in Devon – where my younger daughter resides – and with whom it would be nice to chat over a cup of e-mailed tea. My intentions are strictly honourable – I’m happily married (probably old enough to be her father though one doesn’t ask a lady these things!) and live two hundred miles away. Judging by the fact that she feels free to call her husband The Weirdo she too seems happily married! But dare I ask her for her e-mail address let alone her real address to send her a Christmas card if the friendship developed? No,

Why not? Fear. Fear that she may think I’m even more of a weirdo than her husband or that I will fill her e-mail box full of spam. Or, alternatively, that I have misjudged her and she will either bombard me with e-mails or give my address to some spammer. Jo and I have both had e-mail addresses that we had to give up because of spam and nowadays we each have half a dozen identities. One for the family (a strictly guarded secret); one for key friends, one for casual friends, one for work (in my wife’s case); one for internet purchases....

Recently I had quite a lengthy correspondence with a girl in Illinois – it was great fun, amusing and educational . But neither of us ever suggested swapping e-mail addresses we did it by leaving comments on each others blogs. Perhaps that should be enough but somehow a message that can be read by anyone seems so much less personal and satisfying than a direct e-mail. And, as soon as I wrote that I thought “Will people think I want to say things I wouldn’t say in public?” The answer, of course, is no.

For similar reasons I am very careful how I talk to small girls in the street. If one falls over and hurts her knee you have to be very careful how you touch her as you pick her up. Fear of being mistaken for a pervert requires that one is strictly professional in how you deal with her. Gone are the days when you could have picked her up off the ground, given her a hug and carried her back home with soothing noises.

I am not one who bothers much about what people think of me. They can take me or leave me, that is their choice. But I won’t be someone I am not just to make friends or keep contacts alive other than is demanded by the basic social graces. I spent years in work having to act a part. Now I am retired on ill health and I am just me. But for some reason I would be very bothered if people thought I had ulterior motives in doing good, in spreading a little cheer, or hugging someone better.

It is a shame that the internet has made finding like-minded people so much easier and yet, at the same time, divorced us from them through fear.

A series of Editorials

Pusuing my love of writing I propose to use this blog for a series of longer articles when I get the occasional bee in my bonnet or want to get something off my chest. It is purely for my own benefit but if anyone stumbles across it and wishes to comment they are welcome to do so...