Category Archives: politics

Girls of Slender Means

Muriel Spark is a Scottish writer best known for her ‘Prime of Miss Jean Brodie’, a fabulously ironic take on Edinburgh, 1950s education, art, class and politics. The lead role in the film version is lavished on us by Maggie Smith, only one excellent reason for watching it all over again.

Image result for images 2ww food rationing ukI’ve just finished Spark’s 1963 novel ‘The Girls of Slender Means’, only 117 pages long in the Polygon edition, and loved every comma of it. The story is set in a sort of young ladies’ boarding house, in the summer of 1945 – just at the end of the war and with London bombed to bits, and shortages of every kind set to continue for years to come. Spark sets the scene on page 2 with a view from the top storey of the boarding house down onto the street far below – little dots of people pushing little dots of prams, carrying little dots of shopping bags and this – “Everyone carried a shopping bag in case they should be lucky enough to pass a shop that had a sudden stock of something off the rations.”Image result for images 2ww food rationing uk

All of this resonates with me considerably. My mother had strong memories of wartime rationing and frequently referred back to it when she was bringing us up in the 60s. The real lived experience of shortages and hunger had got into her bones, and she passed this on to us in case we were ever foolish enough to act as if money grew on trees, or food arrived on the plate from thin air. Food historians acknowledge the UK’s rationing arrangements as a major success, with rich as well as poor forced to get by on a restricted diet –  and many people being in better health at the end of the war than at the beginning. It seems this ‘war on the home front’ was also a factor in the UK’s ability to support the war till its end.

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Also resonating with me from Spark’s novel is the boarding house. For my first year at university, aged 18, I stayed in a YWCA hostel in Glasgow, presided over by two lady wardens who might have been as old then as I am now, and whom we saw as utterly ancient. It was a very old-fashioned arrangement and there were lots of large and small covert subversions of the rules. In Spark’s boarding house there was an eccentrically varied collection of personalities with life pouring out through every pore of their being. It makes me think I didn’t pay enough attention to the other girls in the YWCA; but then, actually being young and living the life took up all your energy. It was a fabulous time of my life. The YWCA’s soggy potatoes and stringy stew just went down the hatch; it was fuel for the rest of life.

Image result for images love food hate wasteOver recent decades, across the developed world, food shortages have become a resounding reality for far too many people. All this in the world’s most developed economies. The latest UK figures on Food Bank usage were released the other week: 1.6million food bank parcels were given out in the year April ’18 to March ’19. The national campaign Love Food Hate Waste has addressed this on the domestic front, and for anyone listening, there are excellent suggestions for how to eke out today’s food ration. Yes of course it’s a disgrace that politicians across the world have allowed this to happen. For myself I will try to address this through the democratic process, but it all seems very remote. It’s much more immediately meaningful to adopt good waste-free kitchen habits.

There is a beautifully understated passage in Spark’s book about a seduction scene, in which the most beautiful of the boarding house girls wakes up in a handsome young airman’s bed. She wants to know what’s for breakfast, and he brings out his rations. Selina, we are told, ‘was accustomed to men who got food from the black market.’ That’s all that’s said; it tells us volumes about the whole ethical approach to obtaining food; her carelessness and his care. She’s just biding her time till she finds a rich husband. He is the one with the greater needs of the community at heart.

I wish I knew how to feed the world. Maybe reading and writing is as good a way as any. I applaud Muriel Spark’s thrifty way with words: no waste here.

 

A lot to be thankful for

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Our corner of Fife, bordering onto the Tay, is very fruitful and there’s been a lot of pickling and potting going on. Above is a bowl of windfall pears I was gifted, and made into chutney. More on that later. Meantime, over the weekend, I’ve enjoyed a bunch of events which were set up as fundraisers so here, for the record, are some details:

At work (Lindores Abbey Distillery) we joined in ‘the world’s biggest coffee morning‘ and raised £250 for Macmillan Cancer Support. Lots of people brought in some home baking and our visitors put a wee donation in the box.

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In the TICC (Tayside Institute and Community Centre) there was the usual Saturday coffee morning which on this occasion was to raise funds to fight our cause to have our railway station reopened: and we raised £600. A couple of weekends ago a small group of us also put on a wee music-and-words event, with the support of the artist in residence, and raised £150 for the same cause. It would be brilliant to have the line open again. The picture below is of a hamper put together by small individual donations – just normal day-to-day stuff that makes all the difference.

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And last night the Troubadour and I attended a concert in Dysart, near Kirkcaldy, to support our singing friend Alan.  We were entertained by two great community choirs – Healthy Harmonies, an NHS staff choir; and Capital Voices, from Edinburgh. The minister made a few introductory comments about having attended ‘Food Crisis Summits’ over the last 20 years – her first was in Botswana in 1998; the most recent in Kirkcaldy. I honestly don’t know what to say about people going hungry in this day and age, either in Africa or in Scotland – or anywhere else for that matter. It’s not just about poverty, it’s about politics. We could all be doing far better in sharing out the bounty. Anyway for the record, those two choirs last night raised £1,200 for the Kirkcaldy Food Bank, and that was a brilliant result.

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Finally – here is a beautiful loaf, handformed and baked like a sheaf of wheat – complete with wee mousie having a nibble. It was made by Barry and his staff, of the Wee Bakery, and gifted to the church for Thanksgiving. I’ll use the words of Robert Burns to sign off and wish you always enough food to enjoy and share:

May the moose ne’er leave your girnal wi’ a tear-drap in its e’e’

Food for our Times

The other day, my friend Cath posted an old recipe she’d found for ‘Election Cake’ – a vast concoction designed to sustain an electoral campaign through days and weeks of canvassing.

Yesterday morning we awoke at 5.40am to the unnerving news of our own elections, punctuated by two terrorist atrocities; and spent yesterday listening to the speculations as to how it’s all to pan out. Muted calls for resignations, visits to the Queen, unexpected alliances, and a dodgy-sounding deal with a minority UK party with homophobic and anti-abortion policies. Plus the personal stories of the winners and losers in the governmental race. In our own constituency, there were four recounts because the margin was so slim – only two votes between the potential winners – and frankly, I wouldn’t be in their shoes for all the gravy on the Edinburgh-to-London Express.

So today, it’s a time for grounding ourselves again in the little certainties which sustain us. And a significant memory: fifty years ago today, the Troubadour went to the phone box down the road to find out whether his wife had given birth yet. ‘Yes,’ he was told, ‘visiting time is at 3pm. You can see them then.’ He went to work and at lunchtime the mechanics took him to wet the baby’s head. Eventually, still in his overalls, he got to see his first and only, that afternoon. Happy birthday, Jan.

This morning, before the birthday trip, I am going to set up my first ever batch of sourdough. It feels like it’s important to celebrate the thrifty skills which keep us all going; to put something away for tomorrow and the day after; to create something for sharing. Various traditional favourites recommend themselves but I want to find a bit of solidarity with our non-UK national neighbours, those who prop up our economy with their skills and knowledge and can-do-will-do attitude; and are still waiting to see whether they are welcome to stay, post-Brexit. Sourdough bread fits the bill.

Between paragraphs 3 and 4 above, I decided to get on with it instead of just talking about it – so here it is; 100g each of strong flour and tepid water, and a few sultanas. I have to leave it for 24 hours at room temperature, feed it and leave it again … by the time I can actually make some bread, the rawness of the election season will have soothed a bit and we’ll be plodding ever onwards. Those who have the stomach for it will engage directly with the political process; apart from casting my vote, that doesn’t include me. I’ll just mind the sourdough.2017-06-10 07.50.09.jpg

Nourishing the Nation

Went to a meeting in the Scottish Parliament last night – Cross Party Group on Food. This is one of over a hundred specific interest groups which cross party lineExterior of the Holyrood Buildings; they are open to the general public as well as people with a specific interest. This was my first visit to the Food group. It was a good session – 90 minutes of informed, enthusiastic information and debate, well chaired by Mark Ruskell MSP (Scottish Greens, quite appropriate given the  plea from Nourish Scotland on eating more veg).

The theme for the evening was learning and development for food industry practioners. We had presentations from the Food and Drink Federation Scotland; the College Development Network for the food industry; and Skills Development Scotland. Then there was a lively discussion around the table, with contributions from leaders from the meat, fish and vegetable industries, as well as from other learning providers. E.g. Abertay University informed us of their forthcoming lab provision, enabling hands-on training for students with an interest in creating something new in the food world.

2016-12-01 13.41.30.jpgIt seems that in Scotland we have a fabulous pantry of produce, and some great learning and development initiatives; but that there is a serious problem in funding. Not just the question of insufficient investment, but of sustainability of funding to allow for development and growth.

Food is a key part of Scotland’s economy, and so on an economic agenda alone it ought to be supported. However food is also a global issue and a basic human right; and ironically, the Cross Party Group’s last meeting focused on the problem of malnutrition, alive and well in Scotland. I know this picture is replicated worldwide; surely it’s time to do something about it?

I’m fortunate to live in a country that respects and fosters debate and democratic involvement; and that has such lush food provision in its hills and valleys and shorelines I’d like to find a way of spreading it round a bit. Suggestions welcome.

 

Fine Old Rebelry

Do you ever get bored with the mincing correctness of politics these days?  I have to confess I’ve never been all that interested at the best of times, so I’m no kind of expert on these matters.  However it does feel like there’s a lot of games of conkers going on in the chambers of elected members across the land.

House of the Binns 013Yesterday a friend and I visited House of the Binns, near Linlithgow – very close to home for both of us but neither of us had ever been before – it’s always the way.  It was a very pleasant visit – a fine old laird’s house of the early 17th Century, full of interesting portraits and charming mismatched old china, and inhabiting a lovely spot looking down over the Firth of Forth (‘Binns’ apparently means something like ‘Bens’ – ie hills – the estate is built on two hills). It is the family home of the Dalyell family – Tam Dalyell was Labour MP for Linlithgow from 1962 to 2005.   Our guide, a Grangemouth lady who has been guiding for over 15 years, was knowledgeable and entertaining, and dropped in some nice personal opinions and experiences.

We were graced by a personal appearance of Dalyell himself.  Now over 80, he excused himself to check on the welfare of his bees, then shuffled off again.  Among the many portraits on show, there were copies of press cartoons highlighting his political career as a ‘dogged crusader’.  One of the best was of Dalyell  with his teeth clamped round a woman’s ankle , handbag brandished nearby – Maggie Thatcher.  Apparently he was twice suspended from the House of Commons for calling her a liar, and refusing to retract the accusation.  He compared the Falklands campaign to ‘two bald men fighting over a comb’.  Although a ready challenge to the conservative governments of his day, he was no less critical of New Labour, and staunchly declared himself ‘Ancient Labour’.

How exciting to come into contact with landed gentry who care about the masses.  And it gets better.  Tam Dalyell is married to Kathleen Wheatley, whose father, Lord Wheatley, was Labour MP for Edinburgh for many years, and established the Legal Aid system in Scotland.  He was a lifelong Roman Catholic, and at his memorial service in 1988, the then Lord Chancellor, Lord Mackay of Clashfern, a member of the Free Presbyterian Church, was disciplined by his church for attending Lord Wheatley’s service in the catholic church.

I don’t really care that much what denomination people belong to or what beliefs they profess.  But I love it when people rise above the often-stifling and misguided institutions of formal religion and do the right thing.  And ditto with politics.  Yesterday was a refreshing blast of rebelry and I hope it hasn’t gone from public life.