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Category Archives: diary
Ok. Stand back. Let me explain. The hour shift only actually makes a difference for eight weeks a year.
What??? You all say.
Let me explain. Be careful now, this will involve science.
In the UK, the times of sunrise and sunset change by about 15 minutes a week or about an hour a month. So though we have a big jump this weekend when the clocks change, all that’s happened is that we’ve shifted Sunrise a month to when it was at the end of September, and shifted Sunset a month to when it would be at the end of November. There’s nothing in the clock change in October that we haven’t already had or wouldn’t have in a month’s time anyway. It doesn’t make the daylight hours any shorter, though to listen to the grumpiness and ill-informed comments at this time of year, it seems that is what people think.
With me so far?
So the eight weeks which have sunset and sunrise times which we wouldn’t otherwise have are from Nov 22nd to Jan 22nd or so – ie a month either side of the winter solstice.
So here are the sunrise and sunset times and the length of the day for 21st Nov, 21st Dec and 21st Jan for London
Without the clocks changing, these numbers would be
I don’t know about you, but 9:03 is pretty late for sunrise and I hate actually going to work in the dark. So to my mind the clock change is worth it for those two months at least.
But guess what – even with the clocks changing, here in Edinburgh I do have to go to work in the dark.
Even though Edinburgh is only about half way up the UK, that is sufficiently further up the planet for those numbers to be inaccurate. In January and November the daylight hours in Edinburgh are about 40 minutes shorter than daylight hours in London. and by December they’re about 50 minutes shorter. (Though of course, our daylight hours are longer by the same amount in midsummer).
So here are the sunrise and sunset times and the length of the daylight hours for 21st Nov, 21st Dec and 21st Jan for Edinburgh:
Without the clocks changing, these would be:
If it sucks when it’s dark at twenty to nine in the morning, it REALLY SUCKS if it’s still dark at twenty to ten! (I spent a couple of winters in Sweden – I know).
As I said, the specific eight week period between 22 Nov and 22 Jan are the only time when the sun rises at times it wouldn’t if we didn’t change the clocks.
I hope this helps explain
- why it’s not that much of a deal
- why you’d miss it in December if the clocks didn’t change and
- why I’d REALLY HATE YOU if they didn’t
“But what do you eat…?”
In much the same way that there are deaf people with a small d and the Deaf community with a big D, I am beginning to think that there is vegetarian cooking with a small v – which is all about meat and the lack of it – and Vegetarian cooking with a big V which is about actual Vegetarianism.
It seems to me there are five types of meat-free cooking.
Aphra’s guide to vegetarian food
1 – Something that’s “almost but not quite entirely unlike meat” (with thanks to Douglas Adams)
Expensive factory-made vegetable protein that passes itself off as cheap factory-farmed meat. These are Seitan, Quorn meat-style pieces, Soya mince, and so on. I loathe these on principle but am ok with them in practice. Mr Behn is a vegan and quite likes them
These represent a style of cooking I was never fond of in the first place; I never did use cheap factory-farmed meat for a start (I used cheaper cuts of meat for sure, but went for good meat usually from independent butchers).
But there’s more to my dislike than that. There’s an element of selling-out here: there is so much more to vegetarian cooking than pretending to be chunks of meat. For me, this is the vegetarian equivalent of the choice I made to become “one of the lads” when faced with sexism in the workplace. It’s like changing your accent to fit in. It’s accepting normative pressure to be or do something you are not, instead of celebrating something real and much richer.
2 – Even better than the real thing, baby (with apologies to U2)
There’s a category of vegetarian food which copies meat dishes rather than chunks of meat, and some of these are surprisingly good. Meat eaters (including me) are surprised by how good Linda McCartney’s vegetarian sausages are. They’re no match for artisan-crafted Cumberland sausages made out of Gloucester Old-Spot pork by an independent butcher, but they are better than most cheap sausages. (Q: Why do butchers put bread in the sausages? A: Because they can’t make both ends meat. Boom-tish.) Likewise McSween’s Vegetarian Haggis and Simon Howie’s Vegetarian Haggis are as good as meat haggis without the apparent ikk factor. (Haggis is one of the few things I miss: I was never frightened by offal).
Not everything is as successful as these; I’ve had vegetarian haggis that’s been little more than mashed beans. But aiming for meat dishes rather than aiming for meat gives the manufacturers more room for maneuver.
3 – Tribute dishes
These are ones prepared in the style of meat dishes, but unashamedly substitute non-meat ingredients. Don’t look for steak or seitan in a mushroom and chestnut suet pudding. My tendency to use lentils instead of mince puts my lasagne and moussaka into this category.
This isn’t always successful: for years mushroom strogonoff was the default vegetarian option on most pub menus, (mushrooms are apparently “meaty”… no I don’t get it either).
This approach still betrays the thinking that goes “start with meat and work out from there”.
4 – If the meat is in teeny tiny pieces, is it necessary at all?
A lot of dishes, especially mess-in-a-bowl ones, really don’t need meat: risotto, jambalaya, many kinds of curry, chowders, and so on. I can get four meals for six people out of one chicken (roast, pie, risotto, soup) I know damn fine you don’t need chicken to make a good risotto.
I’ll grant you bacon and ham; there’s no real substitute for teeny tiny bits of bacon and ham as in pea and ham soup, though I do sometimes fry sunflower seeds in soy sauce for small crunchy salty bits to sprinkle on things.
5 – Ta dah! – Vegetarian Food!
Ladies and gentlemen, I bring you…. capital V- Vegetarian Food. Food that doesn’t give a toss about meat. Food where meat would be an intrusion. Food that didn’t start in someone’s mind with meat and work out from there. There is so much of it, and it’s so goddam delicious. And that’s what hurts.
There’s starter veggie food that everyone knows about but doesn’t think of as veggie because it’s comfort food: Mac and cheese, Fried egg sandwich, Beans on toast, Bubble and Squeak, Cheese on toast, Eggs Florentine, Baked Potatoes.
Then there’s a whole swathe of Indian, Greek, Moroccan and Lebanese cuisine: Chana Masala (chick-pea curry); Dolmades (rice or aubergine in vine leaves); Hummous (c’mon, you know what hummous is); Baba Ganoush (always sounds like the witch in a Russian fairy story, but it’s an outrageously delicious smoked aubergine dip); and a wide range of beans in every variety of savoury dressing both hot and cold.
The point about all these dishes is that they don’t need meat. It’s not missing – it’s irrelevant.
I appreciate that meat substitutes have a place – some vegetarians miss meat and others like Mr Behn find they add variety to their diet. But I see no reason to imitate cheap meat badly when you can celebrate the amazing range of Vegetarian food really well.
How to plan a Vegetarian main course
The trick with Vegetarian food is mixing two or more kinds of protein; so rice and pulses (chick-pea curry with rice), pulses and grain with dairy (lasagne). It’s a knack, it’s easy once you get the hang of it. And it stops you thinking “meat and then what…..?”
Some rants – Blue Cheese, Goats’ Cheese and Tofu
While I have your attention, let me share the warm hatred I have in my heart for goats’ cheese. This is the mushroom strogonoff of our times and I’ve had enough to last my one and only lifetime. Goats Cheese Tart, Salad with Crumbled Goats Cheese, Grilled Goats Cheese on a Red Onion Marmalade are lazy lazy thinking by chefs who think “if it doesn’t have meat it must have cheese”. And I just plain don’t like the flavour of blue cheese in cooked food. Bored, bored, bored of these two.
Finally there’s tofu. Tofu is compressed soya beancurd and varies in texture from cheese-cake to cheese. It’s nothing like cheese in other ways, and saying “tofu is a substitute for meat” is like saying “ferries are a substitute for trains”. They do different things in different circumstances.
But saying you dislike tofu is meaningless. There’s almost nothing there for you to dislike. It’s an ingredient (like flour), by itself it tastes of nothing (like flour), it gets its flavour from what it’s cooked with (like flour), it works well when it’s marinated (ok, this is where my analogy breaks down) or when it’s smoked. So don’t bung tofu into your recipe instead of meat and then complain about it. Treat it with respect and it’ll treat you.
I am sorry about those rants; I just had to get them off my chest.
About being a Vegetarian
I shouldn’t be irritated when people who eat meat ask what we eat in our largely vegan household. Mr Behn is vegan. Me, I don’t eat chunks of cheese, buy milk or cream, or eat eggs, but I’m a vegetarian not a vegan because I cannot face having to read every single label of every single product forever. Plus I don’t actually like Oreos.
I rather enjoy telling people “Mr Behn’s never eaten meat” because he was raised vegetarian by dippy hippies, but apparently his family weren’t completely vegetarian until he was a toddler. He did try to eat chicken as a training exercise for going to China. (Note the unpleasant use of the word “try”). So the truth is “he’s never consciously digested meat”, but it doesn’t have quite the same ring to it.
I don’t actually know when I became a vegetarian.
I was raised by women who were adults during the war (both wars, in the case of my grandmother) so I learned to treat meat with respect because you won’t get it at every meal. My grandmother’s macaroni cheese was a wonder to behold, involving soft-boiled eggs and a breadcrumb topping.
They raised me to be fussy carnivore, preferring good meat (free range, from independent butchers) though not necessarily expensive cuts (I can and did stew neck of lamb, casserole rabbits, stuff hearts and cook belly pork with butter beans and apples, as I said offal held no fears for me).
So easing back from meat three times a week, to once a week, to once a fortnight was easy. I don’t know when I last ate meat. I do know when I finally identified as ‘a vegetarian’ rather than ‘someone who eats vegetarian food’: it was when a cafe gave me bacon with my pancakes and maple syrup and I felt sick at the smell.
I am trying to work out when email broke. I think it was about 18 months ago, maybe a year ago. No-one replies to emails any more.
I think it’s because we read them on our smart phones, but we’ll only reply to the easy ones when we’re on the move. Anything more complex we’ll leave till later and, as I learned when negotiating with my mother, later never comes.
Two or three years ago, five or fifteen years ago, emails worked. You would send an email and someone would respond within a few hours, a day at most. You would reply or send another and they would respond to that one. Email was faster and more flexible than letters, more private than faxes (unless you made the tee-hee-hee “classic” “newbie” mistake). It was great.
Recently I have been working on the schedule for Skeptics on the Fringe, and it’s been frustrating. It feels inappropriately public to make the first contact via Twitter and too in-your-face to make the first contact by phone. However, approaches by email are caught by spam filters or suffer from the double-bounce drop (if your email’s too complicated to be returned on the first bounce, it will be dropped).
I worked in times BC (Before Computers). Then I would have used the phone far more when I was confirming the schedule with the speakers, written letters quite a bit and maybe exchanged some faxes, instead of what I did today which was to use a mixture of email, twitter, FB messenger, texts, phonecalls and skype.
I am not certain which day would have been more productive, but I think I’d have been more productive BC.
We all used the phone more as a business tool, but these days I am shy of phoning people without arranging a time first, and when I do arrange a time to speak to someone call it “skyping”. Today I got my rapid answers via Twitter, Chat, Skype, and Facebook messenger.
Would the letters have got a better response than the emails will now? I think so. People opened their post and put it in an In Tray and worked their way through it. Ideally you would deal with each piece of paper only once using one of the Three Ds (Do, Delegate or Dump). I am now trying to remember when I last saw an actual In Tray on an actual desk that isn’t in a post room. People mean to do that with emails, but the new wave of crap coming in drowns the previous wave of crap to be dealt with.
I am quite tempted to start writing letters again, just for kicks and giggles. Novelty works. In those early years of my working life, a fax was a good way to get someone’s attention because it was an urgent and important thing and the receptionist would bring it round immediately. But no-one has fax machines any more, there’s no “reply” link on a letter, no click through to our website, and stamps are 60p each.
So was BC was a pre-lapsarian age of artisan communications? When I started writing this post I thought “don’t be silly” but the more I re-wrote it, the less certain I became. With my rose-tinted specs on it seems like a golden age but Time Management™ courses and complicated products which were basically diaries in ring binders were heavily marketed suggest that someone made a lot of money out of other people being inefficient.
Instead, I shall think longingly of the true golden age, of the years between 1994 and 2012 when people read and replied to emails.
Incidentally, I assume you know, you babes who are reading this, that the cc on an email stands for “carbon copy”. Tell me you also know that a “carbon copy” was created by placing a sheet of black “carbon paper” between the heavier piece of paper of your top copy and the lighter piece of paper of your carbon copy; the impression by metal typewriter keys would then knock the carbon onto the carbon copy. This was one of the reasons why accurate typing mattered. The first carbon copy was legible, the second less so, the third a grey fuzzy blur.
How many people does it take to arrange a picnic on a beach?
300, apparently, if the beach is in the Western Isles of Scotland, if the people having the picnic were the Royal Family, and if they got there using the Royal Yacht Britannia.
I was brought up by royalists; my great grandmother wouldn’t let taxis take her down the Cromwell Road. But logic and atheism pull me towards republicanism these days, more-so now than ever after visiting HMY Britannia yesterday. I should have taken photographs, sorry about that.
Bedrooms and bunk beds
The strongest images I took away were of the stark comparisons between the bedrooms of the Queen and Prince Philip, looking like rooms in a rather old fashioned country house hotel, but palatial compared with the grey below-decks quarters of the “yoties”, folding bunks stacked three high in dormitories sleeping dozen or so men who had no more than a locker each for their possessions…. well it made me feel very republican, so it did. And apparently they slept in hammocks up until 1973.
That said, yachtsmen volunteered. they were members of the navy or the marines, and some served for up to 20 years on Britannia, one for 34 years, so no-one was coerced. But even so.
There were rules to ease social awkwardness
The crew were to be as unobtrusive as possible, and if a Yachtsman did encounter a member of the Royal Family, he had to stand still and look straight ahead until they had passed. – Britannia: Life below decks
This was common in aristocratic households where servants were required to turn to face the wall if they were seen by a member of the Family. It serves to enforce the hierarchy of course, but it also saves all that awkward social interaction too, preserving the illusion of privacy.
The argument was that Britannia acted as a floating embassy.
But it only needed the state rooms for that, not the Royal Family’s bed rooms, sitting rooms, sun lounge and private sun deck.
Britannia was paid for out of the defence budget, and when members of the Royal Family were aboard it was accompanied by ships of the line. While Blair’s act in pulling the financial plug can be read as spiteful, it was rational and it wasn’t petty. Britannia cost £11m a year to run, and a new ship would have been hundreds of millions to build. I’ve no objection to the Royal Family paying for their own floating palace, I do object to them free-loading with the defense budget though.
What’s she for, exactly?
We are always told soothingly that the Queen is a constitutional monarch and has no real power, all she does is sign bills into law. In which case why does she need such fancy bedrooms, palaces and such? What is in those Red Boxes we are told she works so hard on every day? What the hell are we paying her for?
Maybe it’s because she does exercise real power. And this raises the real question: by what right does she exercise that power? Who elected her?
Paula Yates always irritated me.
She was just enough older than me for that to be annoying in its own right, and then there was the way that she always mentioned she was a size 6. Every. Single. Time. She. Wrote. An. Article. And then she gave her daughters those ridiculous names: Fifi Trixibelle, Peaches Honeyblossom, Little Pixie and Heavenly Hiraani, which almost seemed a form of child abuse in its own right.
Then it turned out she was Hughie Green’s daughter, which creeped me out rather. And then the poor bitch died aged 41.
I may not be a size 6, but I am not dead. And so I felt sorry for her.
And now Peaches Honeyblossom has died aged 24, poor girl.
“I remember the day my mother died, and it’s still hard to talk about it,” Peaches told Elle in 2012.
“I just blocked it out. I went to school the next day because my father’s mentality was ‘keep calm and carry on’,” she said.
“So we all went to school and tried to act as if nothing had happened. But it had happened. I didn’t grieve. I didn’t cry at her funeral. I couldn’t express anything because I was just numb to it all. I didn’t start grieving for my mother properly until I was maybe 16.”
Katherine Whitehorn wrote that Exodus 20:5 is an observation, not a curse. It says:
I, the Lord your God, am a jealous God, punishing the children for the sin of the parents to the third and fourth generation
And here we see it playing out once again.
Larkin of course summed it up perfectly, though one summer about ten years ago I flipped his famous poem around. His original is here. Here’s my version. Both seem sadly appropriate now.
They fuck you up, your darling kids.
They may not mean to, but it’s true
that by the time they’re on the skids
you find there’s sod all you can do.
And so it goes from bad to worse
they have the faults their parents had.
Nothing’s learned and that’s the curse
of little shades of mum and dad.
Man hands on misery to man,
and every effort comes to grief.
You do the very best you can
and then they kick you in the teeth.
Poor women. Both of them. They should have died hereafter.
OK – I am going to whinge now.
It takes more than one day to prepare for Christmas, though not much more.
My Christmas preparations are modest compared with many people’s (an evening each for the pudding, the cards and the tree, and an afternoon for buying presents if you pick your emporium well, and an evening to wrap them). They are also expressly designed to keep me out of shops and to avoid giving money to Amazon.
However, if done, ’tis best done early. And this year circumstance, exhaustion, commitments and illness have prevented me doing the things I enjoy (decorate the tree, go to midnight mass, make a pudding for next year) and have made the ones done out of duty stressful and late.
If I can’t do things I enjoy with people I love, then my ideal Christmas really is a cheque given to Shelter or Streetwork, (and these days to my local Foodbank) and a retreat with the Buddhists so I can rest, think, and re-calibrate myself for the year ahead.
Merry Christmas. Next year om mani padme hum.
I found this snippet while tidying up the blog. Since today would have been my Ma’s birthday, I am posting it now.
While emptying the house before my father died we found a packet of letters addressed to my grandparents and labeled in my mother’s writing: “Congratulations on our engagement and commiserations on Martin’s death”. Martin was her brother, killed aged about 26 in combat. She’d added: “Must have been difficult to write”.
It’s my Ma’s shrewd sarcasm that I miss the most.
The current upswing of feminism is rightly re-igniting debates about bodies and judgementalism. As the meme goes
If you want a bikini body, put on a bikini
The idea that our bodies are there to be judged is common-place and getting more-so. In the Daily Mail’s sidebar of shame women step out, we show off, we reveal and display ourselves (our long legs, our cleavages, our baby bumps, our holiday tans and bikini bodies), we bare ourselves. In relationships we are happy, proud, smiling, or with mystery men. In Dacre’s world, women cannot do something for its own sake or for ours, only for our audience of watchers or because of a man.
I have a tattoo. (Stay with me, it’s not as wild a change of subject as you’d think). I could never see the point in a tattoo I couldn’t see, so it’s on my forearm and I chose mammoths because I like them.
They raise the question though, of who is the tattoo actually for?
It’s hard to work out what they are, especially from a distance. The design is based on cave paintings and is an awkward mix of line-drawing and shade. The only time they’ve been complimented spontaneously was once in a pub when I stood up with my arm held horizontally, reaching for the back of a chair.
In Daily Mail terms they are a failure. But from my (literal) perspective, they are great, and I love them.
I like seeing them trample down my arm towards whatever it is I am doing. (Hitting “post” in three… two… one….) They are a comforting sight first thing in the morning. They even have names, though I am ashamed to admit this.
So, is a tattoo for person who has been tattooed or is it for other people? Well, as it turns out, this particular tattoo is for me.
These aren’t just mammoths, they are feminist mammoths,
Would I lose my job to save the NHS? Yes, in a heartbeat. In a fraction of a heartbeat. Even in this shitty economy with the shitty attacks on the unemployed. If that was all it took to save the NHS I would be typing my notice now.
Would I lose my job in a futile gesture of distress that will be ignored by a minority government with no mandate for what they are doing? Well, no. And it is eating me up. Which is why I am typing this at half past four in the morning.
Today the NHS is 65 years old.
Earlier this year the Tory government and their Lib Dem partners killed it.
In April, the coalition government passed legislation which means that NHS service provision must be put out to tender and so hefty percentage of every pound spent on healthcare in this country must go into the pockets of the likes of Richard Branson and the MPs with financial interests in UK healthcare companies. They were kids voting for Christmas. They passed this legislation despite the fact it was not in their manifesto and they have no mandate to do so. The media were silent while they did it; the good guys found the story too complicated to tell, the frightened guys were silent because they were cowed by the Leveson inquiry, and the venal guys were lined up side by side with the MPs and their friends in the healthcare companies.
The NHS was imperfect, especially after so many years being undermined by New Labour. But it is no where near as imperfect as the smear stories masquerading as news items these last five years would have you believe. The smear stories are propaganda designed to let us assume that it’s not worth saving.
The thing is, if you ask the question “what do we do about the NHS?” the answer must not be “sell it off to the lowest bidder”. We are already seeing that profit-taking companies fail to provide an improved service, that they actually provide worse services, and that they force people who work in the most emotionally demanding jobs in the world to work in perpetual crisis mode. This is not only bleeding patients for profit, it is bullying staff for profit too.
Today those who care to fight for free healthcare for all are marching for the NHS. But I can’t be with them because I have a presentation to give on Monday, and I lost three days this week to migraine, and I am not prepared to lose my job in a futile gesture.
I’ve marched three times in recent years, each time against the Labour government, once for peace, and twice to protest their ignorant destruction of rural life. I did not feel as hopeless then as I do now. But what I learned is that a government driven by dogma will ignore a million peaceful people in the streets. And revolutions since the start of time show that raging mobs produce governments no better than the ones they overthrow.
Democracy is broken. I don’t know if it ever really worked but here it is broken. MPs milk the system for expenses and sell their votes and influence to whoever will pay them. The whores I’ve known have all been infinitely more honest.
What frightens me is that there is no place in the world and no time in the world that I can think of where freedom has been sustained. I think of all those acts of British rebellion from Wat Tyler, to the Levellers, to the Luddites, to the Rebakkah Rioters, to the Jarrow Marchers, to the General Strike of 1929, to the Miners in the 1980s, to the million of us who marched for peace in 2001, and know that all the government have to do is say “la la la, we can’t hear you”. The only way to overturn an established order, it seems, is over their dead bodies, and that’s no solution.
I have come to suspect that the stirling example and unprecedented experiment in justice and social democracy of Europe in the last 65 years was only possible after the shock of a world war, and a war in which fascism was defeated by the collective actions of coalition governments. By, in fact, the will of the people.
The late 1940s were, I suspect, the only moment in history when the NHS could be established, when enough people were used to acting in consort for the greater good of their fellow men and women. At every time before and since we have been fractured into little silos of selfishness and self-interest.
And today I will go to work to keep my job, because I no longer believe that peaceful protest works. And when the election comes round, I shall cast my vote because, like a beleaguered spouse, I keep faith with democracy though I no longer trust it.
And now I shall take some triptanes (which cost me nothing) and some asprin (which cost me 35p) and go back to bed because crying gives me migraines, and migraines are the reason I can’t go to London in the first place.
PS – apologies for spelling mistakes and typos. This piece is posted as written, which is something I never do these days.