Thursday, 31 May 2012

Allotmenting

Last year we had some success with growing various fruit and vegetables in containers in our back garden. It was very rewarding, and so we thought we'd get an allotment as it would give us a lot more options of things to grow. Near the end of Summer last year we were lucky enough to find an available one, and, although we got off to a slow start, it is now taking over our lives...

I thought I'd share some of our progress on here.

The plot as it was when we received it.
Some progress being made.
After lots of hard work, the soil was ready for planting, and a polytunnel was constructed. The polytunnel didn't fare well in the wind and rain of April.
Before the hosepipe ban came in. Watering the potatoes with rainbows.
Our plot as it is now. Th polytunnel repaired, lots of potatoes growing, tomatoes, raspberries, strawberries, and various currants all in place.


Wednesday, 23 May 2012

'The Liar' by Stephen Fry

I picked up this book thinking it was going to be light hearted and humourous, and then within the first chapter there is a murder! The narrative is split over three different time frames; the protagonist (Adrian Healey) at boarding school, at university, and this more sinister storyline, which you know very little about until the final fifty or so pages.

Adrian Healey is a liar. He goes through life creating an alternative world through the lies he tells people. As the reader you can never quite be sure if what’s happening is real, or if it is all part of one of his elaborate lies. This book is endlessly funny, but also deals with some very serious issues such as suicide and prostitution. Despite this, Adrian isn’t given a lot of emotional depth. There are a few moments where there are glimmers of deeper emotions, but they are few and far between.

Cleverly constructed, and intelligently written, this is a wonderfully entertaining read. From the descriptions of his time getting into trouble at boarding school, through to a final glimpse of his adult life, the reader is enthralled by Adrian. There are a host of other recurring characters, some adding humour, others the emotional side to Adrian, and how his feelings change with age. A really wonderful, fun, book. I wish Stephen Fry would bring out more novels. Incidentally, Making History is also wonderfully entertaining and complex but with Stephen Fry there to lead you through effortlessly.

Friday, 18 May 2012

'A Tale of Two Cities' by Charles Dickens


Many people often seem to think of historical novels as a modern phenomenon. Indeed, the Guardian recently compiled a list of the ten best historical novels. All of them were relatively recent. A Tale of Two Cities, Dickens’s most famous historic novel is a shining example of the genre. Dealing with the French Revolution, a topic that is so far-reaching that it could lead to a novel of astronomic size and scale, this novel actually has quite an intimate feel to it. Focussing on a handful of characters, and how their lives interweave and impact on the other characters, with a backdrop of the French Revolution to bring it all into context.

Doctor Manette, having been imprisoned for many years, is reunited with his daughter, who becomes his saving grace. Holding very loosely on to his sanity, Lucie becomes an entirely essential part of his existence. When Charles Darnay enters and steals her heart, how is the Doctor to cope? When he discovers Darnay is part of the evil Evrémonde family, who were key to his incarceration, the plot thickens. They learn to live in harmony, but the events of the French Revolution are to make enemies of them once more.

The novel seems to assume the reader already possesses a certain level of knowledge of the events of the French Revolution, and doesn’t get bogged down in too much historical description. The horrors of the events are made clear, however, and the gruesome realities of life in this period are brought to life.

There are several moving moments throughout, not least when one of the characters is waiting to be taken for execution, counting down the last time they will ever see particular hours, and as another is taken to the guillotine. The focus on a small group of people, rather than scenes of large, faceless crowds really brings home the impact the events of the Revolution had on individuals, something that often gets lost in history, where statistics often seem to take the heart out of events.

Dickens’s writing is a treat to read, with beautiful descriptions, and hard hitting scenes. Being written in English, you often forget half the characters will be speaking in French. There is one scene that I particularly enjoyed where this is made apparent. The stand-off between Miss Pross and Madame Defarge is almost humourous, as they stand in front of the other and speak words of truth without the other understanding. Their inability to understand the words of the other, and the information they can glean from the tone of voice, and gestures build up to a dramatic scene not to be forgotten quickly. I’ve certainly finished this novel with a thirst to read more of Dickens’s work.

Monday, 7 May 2012

Mushroom risotto with roasted butternut squash and rocket

  • Serves two.
  • Pre-heat oven to gas mark five.
  • Peel, de-seed and cut into cubes half a small butternut squash.
  • Place on a baking tray and sprinkle with olive oil. Add two garlic cloves, roughly chopped, and some sage, salt, and pepper, toss, and put in the oven for about 40 mins.
  • In the meantime, chop some mushrooms (it's entirely up to you how many you use, to serve about two people I'd probably use between about 6 and 8), and half an onion.
  • Heat some butter in a pan, and add the onion, cooking for a few minutes. Add the mushroom, and cook until starting to soften.
  • In the meantime, make 500ml vegetable stock.
  • Add about 250g arborio rice to the pan, stirring to cover. Reduce the heat and gradually add the stock to the pan, letting it almost all be absorbed before you add the next ladle full. Stir constantly.
  • When most of the stock has been used, add a good splash of white wine. Continue to stir whilst it is being absorbed, season, and remove from the heat.
  • Remove the butternut squash from the oven and leave to cool slightly.
  • Place some chunks of brie on the plate, and spoon over the risotto (the heat from the risotto will melt the cheese, giving a lovely cheesy depth to the risotto). 
  • Place a handful of rocket on the plate, scatter the chunks of butternut squash on top, and sprinkle with balsamic vinegar.
  • As an optional finishing touch, thinly grate some parmesan (vegetarian if applicable) over the top of both the risotto and butternut squash side.  

Wednesday, 2 May 2012

Kensington Palace

Kensington Palace reopened to the public on the 26th of March this year. I was most looking forward to seeing what Historic Royal Palaces had done with it, and was not disappointed. Although visitors use a side entrance, it is still an impressive approach, a statue of Queen Victoria looking out over Kensington Gardens, proudly marking the entrance to the palace which she spent much of her childhood in.

There are four routes to explore, all leading off from a central room surrounded by portraits of important members of royalty that have associations with the palace.
I chose to try the Queen's (Mary) apartments first. From the staircase which leads you up to them, I knew this was going to be something quite special. Lighting was kept low throughout (flash photography wasn't allowed so I apologise in advance for the quality of some of the photos), and sound effects used to bring the story to life. To wander through these apartments was to experience history in an entirely new way. It may not be to everyone's taste but I loved the mix of modern artistic additions alongside the fascinating historic objects. It created something quite magical.

The Queen's gallery was the only large, stately looking room on this particular route. A string of birds hovering above the room (presumably, as I discovered from the guide book because she kept bird cages in this room) cast entrancing shadows along the wall, framing the portraits which line the wall. 



The next four rooms on this tour were smaller, and more intimate, some mainly showcasing historic objects, others with modern installations taking centre stage. The use of light, shadow, and sound effects throughout created an atmosphere which you don't often find in historic sites.
One of the interesting things about Kensington Palace is that it is still used as a royal residence today, and although it means a large part of it is closed to visitors it also means that it is not just a place of historic interest, but also somewhere where history is still being made. The next route I chose was the Princess Diana section. What Historic Royal Palaces have done particularly well is dealt with subject matter crossing several centuries, and displayed each section in a way relevant to the age, as well as being modern and forward thinking in terms of public heritage. Although I went straight  from a series of rooms, the contents of which were from the seventeenth century into an exhibition about a twentieth century princess, I was completely absorbed in each, and didn't once feel that the contrast was too stark. You are led into the world of the age which you are being shown.  The entrance to the Diana exhibition was lined
with this wallpaper, which I thought was fantastic, and really helps transport the visitor into the glamour of the room you're heading towards. Although only a small exhibition, there were some gorgeous dresses on display, and the photos of Diana around the room remind you of the tragedy that ended her life. Incidentally, whilst visiting Kensington Palace you can see the golden gates in front of which a sea of flowers were placed by the mourning public on hearing of her death.

Next, I moved on to the Victoria tour. This begun in the room she held her first Privy Council meeting on the morning she became Queen. The room is dominated by a large wooden table, and there are shadows cast around the walls of men. It gives a real sense of how intimidating this could have been for the young Queen.

The next series of rooms are beautifully elegant, and I think it was during this route which I felt most aware of the fact history had really happened in these rooms, which is very special indeed. These rooms show Victoria in her happy marriage to Albert, and through to the room in which she would have played as a child.

The Victoria route was probably the most informative in its narrative approach to history, walking you through her life; her biggest achievements, her heartbreak over the loss of Albert, the glory of her Diamond jubilee, particularly potent at this time as we approach our own Queen's diamond jubilee.

I particularly enjoyed one of the rooms on the route, though I admit I can't remember exactly what it was, but it was darkly lit, and full of cabinets of fascinating objects, and books, quite a cabinet of curiosity!

This led me on to the final, most traditional route, that of the King's State Apartments. Up an impressive stairway, and in to an imposing, stately series of rooms, there's a real sense of power and wealth running throughout. A series of figures leading the way through these rooms, giving a sense of the activities that would have taken place.

All in all a wonderful visit, Historic Royal Palaces have done a wonderful job, the palace is quite magnificent. My only slight quibble is that, certainly in some areas, I didn't feel I learnt an awful lot. I liked the fact there weren't signs up all over the place, ruining the atmosphere, but could have used a little more information. There were members of staff in most rooms, but having no specific question I wasn't quite sure how to strike up a conversation with them. Saying that, however, it didn't detract from my day at all, and having perused the guide book I feel I know a little more, and the visit was just wonderful.