Thursday, 27 November 2008

Happy Thanksgiving

Firecracker Corn Bread

Today is Thanksgiving and because I am a global type of person, I decided we should celebrate it. We have been celebrating Chinese New Year for at least three years. The only problem was Colin is out tonight so we celebrated one day early.

I am addicted to two US food blogs 101 cookbooks and Smitten Kitchen so finding recipes was not going to be a problem. On the menu was Pumpkin Soup (recipe courtesy of the BBC) served with firecracker corn bread (101 cookbooks) - this was hot! I had roast duck because I can't face cooking turkey twice in one year, roast potatoes, Brussels sprouts, and Confit of Cranberry (Delia). OK so it was a trial run for Christmas but at least I now have duck fat for roast potatoes and my mountains of cranberry freezing away until the 24th. Life is going to be so easy. Now looking back at my meal I see the one and only recipe from over the pond was the corn bread.

Monday, 24 November 2008

Not Long to Go

Fig wine colour co-ordinating with a pumpkin and my maturing Sloe Gin.

It’s been a while since I posted a ‘first fifty’ blog and because it is nearing the end of the year the ‘firsts’ are starting to pile up.

Over the past few weeks the firsts have been;

Read Great Expectations
. I have read Dickens before but am amazed at the amount of people I have met recently who declare this to be their favourite all time book. It was beginning to get to me. In my classics bookcase I have a fine set of three leather bound compendiums my dad bought years ago and never read. Mark Twain (another who beckons), Arthur Conan Doyle and Dickens. There is no excuse.

The introduction to this version of Great Expectations claims, rather sniffily, that it was a block buster of its day. I can assure anyone who has never read it, that it is a fantastic page turner but it deserves the title of classic. The characters, particularly of Pip, are flawed with human traits and the mad Miss Haversham is every bit as nutty as I imagined she would be. Even the ending is left for the reader to decide. It may not be the best book I have read but it is certainly in the top twenty.

Make Fig Wine
. This year I planted a fig tree and in anticipation of that crop I bought a 500gram bag of figs from the health store. I was then flummoxed as to what to do with them, so I did what I always do with buckshee produce – I made wine. Fig wine was easy to make and cleared to produce a warm honey coloured liqueur with long legs. And the taste? Well it tastes a little strange – it tastes like honey and Greek yoghurt. I am sure it has some medicinal qualities too!

Go to the Bingo
. This is one I have been pining to do. When I was an unruly teenager I would occasionally go to the Sunday night bingo session in the Oakley Miner’s Welfare Club. I sat among all the old biddys and tried to win back some of my drinking money. I was hopeless because I was always too shy to call, but I hankered after these big colourful neon sparkled bingo halls just the same. What would they be like?

On Friday night my friend Fiona and I went to a Carlton Bingo(somewhere in Scotland). We signed up for our membership, paid our money and were given a pile of bingo books, each page containing about six separate grids to play off. It was daunting. The wee man at the microphone was kind enough to tell us what order the books were to play, then we were off. This must be the best trial for concentration I have ever had. The game starts with trying to fill one line. In no time someone calls. The next game is for two lines. This was new to me, they never had this in Oakley. It turned out to be the most difficult of all, so difficult that unlike my early days of silence, I called because I believed I had two lines filled up. I did have two lines filled up, I was certain and yet when the boy came and called my book number, ‘the computer said no’ I still needed 46. Fiona was buckled and my confidence was floored and my face scarlet. No one else seemed to mind. The next part of the game was for a full house. Neither Fiona nor I were near the mark on any of the games, but we did have fun for the first half, then the novelty ran out. We had arranged to meet Colin for a meal and had to leave before the end. The two ladies next to us were delighted to receive out remaining books. They were not fazed with the prospect of looking for numbers on twelve grids. I don’t know how they do it.

The Battle of Stiling Bridge in crayon. It wasn't originally as messy as this, but the sheet has been kicking about in my handbag all weekend

Brass Rubbing.
This might sound daft but it is still a first. I remember when I was a kid this was trendy, if a little nerdy pastime; a bit like crocheting your own bikini. On Saturday I went to the Smith Institute in Stirling with the intention of visiting the Leonardo De Vinci exhibition, the only problem was it moved to Aberystwyth at the beginning of the month. The Smith Institute can still thrill no matter what the exhibits are. The replacement for Leo was the Fife Printmakers Workshop which, spookily, normally lives in the next street to my mother’s flat in Dunfermline. The rest of the time I spent revisiting the permanent exhibit of the history of Stirling, which is more comprehensive than the bridge battle and William Wallace. There are hands on activities one of which is a brass rubbing section. Pick up a piece of paper and a crayon and rub. It isn’t as easy as it sounds; I think the correct way is to tape the paper to the brass, without tape the paper slides around. Good fun though.

Tuesday, 11 November 2008


The Bandsmen

A few years ago my sister and I helped Mum break up the family home in preparation for her move into a retirement flat. It was a time of sadness, but also a time of fun and joy when we found long forget ten toys, photos and musical instruments in the loft. One of the finds, among my dad's possessions, was a diary that belonged to his father, James Patrick McPartlin. Mum gave it to me along with some photos.

The diary is a brown book measuring only one and a half inches by three inches. Just the right size to fit into a serviceman's tunic. The year of the diary is 1918.

My granddad (Papa) was a bandsman and served in the Machine Gun Corp (Suicide Club). In 1918 he was wounded and gassed and spent most of the year in hospital. This diary has fewer than 20 words written in the pages, but they are enough to sketch the picture of his year. When he was discharged from hospital he still had an open wound which needed to be dressed daily for the rest of his life. He died in his fifties, years before I was born.

Not long after receiving the diary I had the opportunity to visit the memorial to the Machine Gun Corp which is situated at Hyde Park Corner in London. Unfortunately it is covered in graffiti but it gave me the chance to thank my grandad for my life and gave me the inspiration to write this poem.

The first few words of each verse are his words - the few entries to be found in this historic diary

(in italics, the sparse 1918 diary extracts of bandsman, James McPartlin, No11 Coy D. Batt, Machine Gun Corps (Suicide Club).)

Jan 10 operation at Stoke War Hospital - your time cut
through horror and waste, steal a breath.
Lungs to blast music fill with poison gas
lay down you instrument and accept the shrapnel blast

Jan 29 operation war Hospital - and lie there, alive
whilst your bandsmen march the tempo of death,
innocent eyes stare out from the frame
stir guilt that beats time in your brain

Feb 6 23 years of age - celebrate old man,
the passing of youth through your bloody wounds
here’s your chance to play the second canon
perform in a brave new battalion

May 3 To Stone Red Cross Auxiliary Hospital - and as you heal
forget the distant thunder of horns
tend to your heart for there lives a hope
sound the Reveille and drown the Last Post

July 29 Left Stone Red Cross Hospital - to bear false hopes
pack your kit bag once more
the suicide club fights to the death
and they are not finished with you yet

Aug 24 operation - hush in dolce
they whisper ‘instruments still shine’
another theatre awaits the twist of a knife
to lay open a weeping wound for life

Oct 18 Discharge from Hospital - with instruction
for a lifetime of pain, a daily dress down parade
a small sacrifice to return home
sow seeds and watch them grow

Oct 31 Left Stoke Staffs - turn your back
for your year and war is ended
syncopation falls flat and the metronome slows
as bandleader bows, the last valves close

Nov 1 Landed Home - to fanfare
to an annual garland of red paper flowers,
your life short, others shorter yet
so we may be free and still we forget

Thursday, 6 November 2008


Last week I trailed round my village with a red can and a bag of plastic poppys to try to persuade people to part with their money for the Scottish Poppy Appeal. The week before all the poppy volunteers gathered in the village hall to watch this video.

It should be shared with everyone; the statistics are shocking.

Please watch this and give to the Scottish Poppy Appeal if you are as moved by it as I was.

Let us hope Obama and Brown can sort this out.