30

Well, that’s it. I’m 30. And it’s not so bad. In fact, it’s a relief. Admittedly, I’ve already started panicking about turning 40, but I’m going to do my best to relax and enjoy this coming decade. Which, after all, is an important one. I have to make it count. I could fuck around in my twenties without suffering too many consequences. Such behaviour seems far less plausible at this age. And far less attractive, too. Perhaps this blog has taught me in some small way that if I bother to put my mind to something, I have a fair chance of succeeding. However, I should probably first tot up my achievements and failures before making grand proclamations. So:

Completed – 8 (26.7%)

Sort of – 6 (20%)

Failed – 16 (53.3%)

Hm. I refrained from adding up the total during the exercise. Partly to surprise myself, and partly because I feared the number of failures would be higher than I expected. My fear was justified. I was hoping at least that the outright failures would be less than 50%. (When counting the ‘Sort of’ pile as 50/50, the results are: Completed 36.7%, Failed 63.3%) Oh well. Annoyingly, I let some really easy ones, such as read the FT and see Hampton Court Palace, slip through my fingers in the last month. I’m still fairly pleased, though. It’s a hell of a lot more than I would have achieved if I hadn’t made the list.

While I won’t be updating the blog any more, I will continue to go to the theatre, see exhibitions and cook new recipes on a regular basis. A friend gave me some knitting needles and thread for my birthday, so the scarf will be made. And damn it, I will develop my ideas and write that bloody awful novel. I’ve been thoroughly enjoying my Spanish beginner lessons, and when they finish in five weeks’ time, I will pursue my studies further. Finding a new job was the most important item on the list. I came close in February – the last few candidates – but sadly missed out. I have to make this one happen because I am gradually losing grip of my sanity. Bench pressing my own body weight was scuppered when my gym buddy moved to Greenwich in January. I’ll simply have to bench press my new flatmate, who is approximately my weight, in the safety of our living room. Driving lessons – both golf and vehicular – are in the pipeline. As are Hampton Court Palace, the FT, acid techno and discovering more about my Jewish heritage (my father and I are planning a trip to my grandmother’s ‘homeland’, Romania, in 2014).

I am going to think about another blog idea, so please keep following this one and I will let you know what I come up with. Hopefully, it will be more imaginative than 31 things to do before I’m 31.

Advertisements

Backlog

I’ve just got back from Rome. Whoa. That’s all I’ll say for now. I’m not sure what else 1000 more words will tell you, to be honest. Maybe a picture will do.

While I have been incredibly slack in updating this blog, I have in fact been busying away at (some of) the tasks. With four days to go, there isn’t a hope in hell of completing them all. But there never was. If I get 50%, I’ll be mighty pleased with myself. Good Friday is going to involve me packing in as much as possible, much like the buffet breakfast in my hotel in Rome. (Four courses minimum, plus numerous pots of coffee and juice, if you must know.)

Because I have let the writing part slide, I have a major backlog of posts. I have Manet, the Barber of Seville, Parsley risotto, the Sistine Chapel, Spanish classes, the Book of Mormon, The Bridge on the River Kwai and chickpeas, among other things, to write about. I will try to do what I can before the big day.

In the meantime, I have Hampton Court Palace to visit, a scarf to knit, movies to watch, the FT to read, a new job to find…

Half Marathon Man

Jess and I have completed the MK Half 2013. We’re having trouble walking and I’ve had to take several naps in the office toilet, but it was entirely worth it. As it was our first half marathon, we decided to stick together throughout the race and not worry too much about finishing times. Naturally, I privately worried a lot. If I didn’t finish in under two hours, I was going to be hugely disappointed. The official times – recorded by a chip worn around the ankle – have been posted online and to my relief we both managed it. Only just, mind. My time was 1:59:59. Jess beat me by one second.

I must say, I thoroughly enjoyed myself. Which is not something I would ever have expected to write a little over a year ago. Pushing further back in time, my 22 year-old self, sprawled across a sofa, bloated like Saturn, surrounded by a ring of dirty cups and plates, would have told myself to go hang himself and before doing so please pass himself the joint. How things change. And stay exactly the same. But enough of that. My long battle with laziness can wait until a later post.

Milton Keynes is a truly hellish place. The people behind its creation have perpetrated a great evil on this land. Boring, long roads systematically lined with boring, uniform boxes, interspersed with boring, concrete walkways. Upon leaving the train station, visitors are led up Midsummer Boulevard, a name that evokes Shakespeare, fantasy, Paris. Milton Keynes does not benefit from the comparison. And this was a planned utopia? Nonetheless, the route was actually quite pleasant, soon leaving the town and traversing some pretty villages, parkland and a lakeside, swinging in and out of the town at various points, until finishing near the Xscape centre.

The longest run that Jess and I had done prior to the half marathon was eight miles. I figured that another five wouldn’t be so bad. And I was sort of right. The first seven or eight miles simply flew by. The adrenaline was pumping and the novelty of overtaking, or being overtaken, kept me entertained, along with some of the kit people decked themselves out with, such as belts for holding numerous liquids, gels and energy bars. A few locals braved the snowy conditions and cheered us on, with some even handing out jellybabies, which were like timely shots of amphetamine. It was only when we reached the eleventh mile that my legs began to tire. Unfortunately Jess’ legs nearly packed in, but to her credit she fought on and we only stopped once for a few minutes when the sight of an approaching steep hill caused her to hyperventilate. We eventually made it to the top and even managed a gentle sprint across the finishing line.

During the past month or so, running had become a chore, not helped by the cold weather. However, I’m already looking into signing up to another half marathon in the summer and will try my luck with the 2014 London marathon. I may even look into getting one of those silly belts. And I wonder if they do jellybaby dispensers which you can attach to your head…

A veggie convert – sort of

Well, that’s it. Aside from a couple of minor mishaps with some Haribo, and the curious incident with the bacon bits, I’ve managed a whole month without ingesting any animal products. No doubt cow embryos keep my hair silky smooth or goat uvula extract helps alleviate my eczema, but to the best of my knowledge I’ve succeeded in this challenge. Whoop.

Did I notice any significant difference, with regard to physical well-being? Not really. Other than perhaps I was marginally less sluggish after meals. And I’m afraid I’m not willing to discuss my bowel movements – there are some things that I hold sacred. No doubt, over a much longer period, the human body benefits from a sustained absence, or limited intake, of meat, particularly that which is processed. I believe I’m right in thinking that two groups with the highest average life-spans subsist mainly on vegetables and fish. (They also live off the coasts of Italy and Japan respectively, and I imagine a warmer climate, relatively laidback work environment and less materialist outlook are all contributing factors.) Bearing in mind the scale involved, it would be unrealistic to expect any noticeable impact on my health – which is pretty good anyway – after only one month. Which is not to say that this wasn’t a worthwhile experiment. On the contrary, it has precipitated a profound and irreversible shift. (I think – I have a long history of losing interest or simply forgetting). The fact is, that against all the odds, I have survived, and quite happily to boot. As I begin to reintroduce meat into my diet, I am having to rethink many of my eating habits. For starters, I consume far too much meat, and the meat that I do eat is often of too poor a quality. Among other things, I don’t want to be part of a chain that inflicts abject misery on other animals for my fleeting pleasure. Collectively, we manage to bury the harsh realities of meat production, but this past month has allowed me to reflect on it properly. So the aim is to eat less, pay more. Organic, free-range, public-school educated, etc. This has as much to do with taste and flavour as with dubious welfare standards. I still don’t recognise anything inherently immoral about eating meat. Providing the animal is treated with respect, I imagine it would lead a far more comfortable life on a farm than in the wild.

In this spirit, I went to Waitrose on Sunday to buy some rainbow trout for dinner. On my way to the fish counter, I spotted a reduced own-brand chicken soup. It was part of the supermarket’s LOVE Life range, which is “committed to bringing you the best quality”. I assumed that the chicken would be responsibly sourced, a sentiment expressed by my girlfriend when I half-absently raised the point. “Oli”, she said, with a hint of exasperation, “it’s Waitrose”. That was all I needed to hear. It was only after I ate the soup that I began to question our blithe acceptance that Waitrose would choose to use free-range chickens. Was it just because they pander to the self-conscious middle-classes? (Who, incidentally, are complicit in being ripped off, it seems to me, in order to assuage their fragile insecurities. Waitrose allows you to buy your redemption. If it’s more expensive, it must serve a higher purpose. Also, the staff actually apologise if anybody below the recommended socio-economic threshold accidentally strays in.) Looking at the packaging on the soup, I couldn’t find a single reference to where the chicken came from, other than that it was British. Naturally, a wave of patriotic fervour swept through me, but once this had subsided I was left none-the-wiser as to whether the chicken was battery or free-range. (Although what does free-range actually mean? This is going to be harder than I thought. I’m going to have to seek out proper facts and data, which as a rule I try to avoid – they tend to contradict my firmly held beliefs.) This kind of information should really be a legal requirement. As a consumer, I have the right to know. In the meantime, I am going to be unable to purchase pre-prepared food unless the meat’s provenance is clearly described. The implications are only just dawning on me.                 

As predicted, it’s been enormous fun criticising people’s life choices from a position of authority. But what began as a harmless righteous crusade has already become a ball-ache as I’ve realised that I need to act upon my convictions. For example, there’s an excellent deli near my office on Old Street. A typical sandwich will consist of toasted ciabatta, soured cream, roasted red peppers, spicy chicken and mozzarella. I treasure many fond sandwich-related memories thanks to this place. Unfortunately, it’s all been turned to shit. I can’t imagine that the chickens led a relaxed and fulfilling life before ending up all plump and juicy in the display cabinet. Even if I’m wrong, there’s not a hope in hell of me asking. It’s busy, it’s noisy and the staff aren’t English, so it’s likely that I’ll have to repeat myself in an increasingly louder – and therefore indignant – voice and go into greater detail about what exactly I mean by ‘sustainably and ethically sourced’. So unless I can find a viable vegetarian alternative, I can kiss goodbye to some of the best sandwiches in town. I’m hoping that I’ll be a little bolder in restaurants.

Why are principles such a pain in the ass?

[My first bit of research – http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/health-21682779]

I have to think of a title as well?

I’ve been very lazy of late. Phew. I’ve been labouring over that sentence for about fifteen minutes. Which is alarming. Especially as I have come up with a vague idea for the novel I’m never going to write. One of its main themes is laziness and, predictably, I can’t be bothered to start. That could be the premise of the novel. This post has so far taken me about 25 minutes. I sometimes think that for many years I have had glandular fever but have been too lazy to notice. I wonder if this current wave is due to a lack of meat. Oh God. This is painful. I’m going to have to sign off and try again another time.

Sense and sentiment

Proust is coming along slowly. I don’t see any other way it possibly could come along. His style is quite loose – he certainly plays fast and loose with punctuation – meaning there are often long, meandering passages with multiple subordinate clauses. I’m regularly having to re-read paragraphs or whole pages to grasp the point(s) or effect, and even when I’ve managed that, it’s natural to stop and mull it over. There is a quote by Nabakov on the back cover, in which he says that Proust’s novel is, in part, about the “transmutation of sensation into sentiment”. (The main thrust of the novel is inspired by a sudden memory brought about by the taste of madeleine cake dipped in tea.) The narrator, for example, remembers being a child and reading novels in his aunt’s garden in Combray (a fictional village). He describes struggling to assimilate the disconnected reality bordering the open pages of the book with the supposed ‘false reality’ in which he is engrossed, mentioning along the way that a writer’s trick is to compress the emotions and that in life we hardly notice because they occur over such a long period. Being Proust, he mentions a whole lot else besides, both stated and implied, all in one surging paragraph. And when reading this, if I could not recall specific memories, I was certainly able to fixate on the sensation of being a boy and reading in the sunshine while my family moved near-invisibly around me. (Something that actually still happens at the age of 29.) And in the process of doing this, I drifted off for several minutes thinking about who knows what, until finally returning to my bedroom and the enormous book in my hand. I think this is going to happen a lot. Which means I haven’t a hope of finishing this first volume before my birthday, especially as I’ve only recently passed page 100. It hardly matters. The book is excellent and unlike anything I have read before. The point was to finally get started. When I finish is really neither here nor there.

Sausages

Sausages. How I love them. If I had to pick a single animal to eat for the rest of my life, it would be the pig. Bacon, gammon, ham, pork chops and sausages. Such delicious variety. The first thing that springs to mind when I think of a barbeque is sausages. The same goes for sausages and mash. Even the word ‘sausages’ is a joy.  Sausages, sausages, sausages.

Which all goes some way towards explaining why eating vegetarian alternatives has been a particularly egregious experience. I have tried two varieties so far, each objectionable in its own special way. They are the Quorn sausage, and Linda McCartney’s ‘wheat protein’ sausage, both of which are an insult to that happy name.

The Quorn company has weirdly decided that the best way to market their meat-free products is to make them resemble meat as much as humanly possible. Their products include ‘chicken-style’ Quorn pieces, Quorn fish fingers, Quorn mince, peppered Quorn steaks and, of course, Quorn sausages. I think there might even be Quorn rashers. Quorn offal can’t be far off. Inevitably, for a meat-eater, Quorn pales in comparison. Being constantly reminded of meat while eating something that tastes nothing like meat is bound to lead to disappointment. Curiously, the company’s website is less forthcoming in telling the consumer that the food is extracted from a fungus, settling instead for the mention of mycoprotein. While the stuff’s provenance doesn’t bother me in the slightest, Quorn’s attempt to attain meaty status is a smidge disingenous. Saying that, some of it doesn’t taste all that bad, you know.

Less can be said for Linda McCartney’s sausages. Not only were they bland, but I had to contend with patronising and sanctimonious proselytising. Apparently, by purchasing LM’s products, I am a nicer human being. Now it just so happens that I am seriously re-evaluating the amount of meat I eat, mainly with regard to health, quality and the inherent ethical implications. But reading “[our] ethos [is] vegetarian food that’s good for animals, the earth and you” makes me want to go out and slaughter something.

In other vegetarian news, I’m generally doing fine. Although I did consume a packet of Haribo the other week without thinking of the gelatine. I don’t know whether Haribo are being investigated for horse gelatine. Speaking of which, I was bloody outraged by that scandal. I’ve been going to France once a month for my horse shop. Now they tell me I needn’t have bothered.

(Apologies for the ranty, incoherent nature of this post. Something to do with it being Monday perhaps.)

Bean and aubergine hotpot

As he’s keen to stress, Nigel Slater is a cook, not a chef, and this often translates into unfussy, flavoursome food that demonstrates a profound love and understanding of cooking and ingredients. Which is just one of the many reasons I was looking forward to trying something out from his recent book, Kitchen Diaries II.

IMG_0726

In his introduction, NS encourages the reader to use the recipes merely as a springboard for his or her own creations. Emboldened by this apparent faith in my innate ability, I made minor, inconsequential alterations to this simple, wholesome dish. With disastrous consequences. Admittedly, this might have had something to do with me being a cheapskate. Also admittedly, ‘disastrous’ is quite misleading. Mildly disappointing is probably closer to the truth. 

I have big plans for growing my own herbs this spring in the limited space provided by south-east-facing windows. Current herbs in mind include flat-leaf parsley, thyme, garlic chives and purple basil. In the meantime, when a recipe recommends fresh herbs, I tend to opt for dried. If I do buy a bunch of fresh herbs – usually pre-packaged in the supermarket and costing far more than their dried counterpart – I invariably end up throwing some away. And generally speaking, dried works out fine. Not so with rosemary. The flavour and aroma are completely lost, and this, combined with under-seasoning, rendered my hotpot rather flat. Whilst packed full of healthy goodness (always the first thing I look for on a restaurant menu) I couldn’t help thinking that chorizo would really make this hotpot fly. The need for salt might partly explain this. On the second night, I cooked some oven chips, dumped them on top of the beans and squirted the whole lot with American-style mustard. A vast improvement. (I’m quite pleased with the progress of my food writing – words like ‘dump’ and ‘squirt’ really whet the appetite.)

Then again, I might just find bean hotpot a bit, well, dull. I tend to gravitate towards big, rich flavours. Which is exactly what Nigel delivered with the next dish I cooked.

To be continued…

Double Indemnity

I was expecting a whodunit. While it bore most of the classic film noir motifs – violence, sex, moody lighting – Double Indemnity (1944) was more of a psychological thriller. Indeed, any expectation of a surprise twist is dashed within minutes. Directed and co-written by Billy Wilder, the story begins with insurance salesman Walter Neff (Fred MacMurray) confessing, through an absurdly large dictaphone, to murder, and depicts in flashback his gradual demise. 

Dropping by the house of a client whose automobile insurance has lapsed, Walter encounters the client’s wife, Phyllis Dietrichson (Barbara Stanwyck), alone. They flirt outrageously and she hints that she wants her husband dead. He walks out disgusted but is soon seduced by the blonde femme fatale. Together they concoct a foolproof plan to murder the husbandThis ultimately involves duping him into signing life insurance. A clause in the policy – called double indemnity – commits to paying out twice as much to the widow if the husband dies by accident. All they have to do is evade the uncanny intuition of Barton Keyes (Edward G. Robinson), the insurance company’s claims manager…

Double_indemnity

The script was full of tough, quick-fire dialogue. Walter refers to Phyllis as ‘baby’ a lot. Something that I personally, and with great regret, can’t pull off. I have to make do with the likes of ‘scrumptious’ and ‘sweetie’. Harmless and familiar and ball-achingly English.

Some memorable lines included:

‘How could I have known that murder can sometimes smell like honeysuckle?’

‘You’re not smarter, Walter, you’re just a little taller.’

‘I couldn’t hear my own footsteps. It was the walk of a dead man.’  

This is hardly surprising. The film was co-written by Raymond Chandler, the creator of hardboiled detective Philip Marlowe. I studied The Big Sleep at university as part of a crime fiction module, and inevitably, and stupidly, watched the movie instead of reading the book. Still, it was a great movie. Nonetheless, I think I’m going to revisit Chandler in written form.

Straight down the line, baby.

Goodbye, baby.

Nope. It just doesn’t come naturally to me.

Toodles.