A Truth That Should Be Universally Acknowledged



Photo: Anthony Albright

A few weeks ago I completed something that has been on my list for a long time — reading all of Jane Austen’s novels. I’ve written previously about the trouble I had in getting through Mansfield Park, but on the fifth attempt I managed to finish it and surprised myself by liking it best of all. For those who are similarly list-minded, then Emma came in at number two.

Having done that, I decided to round off my treat by having an indulgent morning out, visiting her home in the village of Chawton. It’s where she wrote and published most of her novels, and I enjoyed the twenty-mile drive through Hampshire countryside with its great sweeping fields stretched out red-gold in the late autumn sunshine. It’s an intimate little house and I spent a gentle, but interesting couple of hours there delving around in the relics of her life and watching a short film. In one of the rooms, I stood next to a small round table where she wrote, and I read that a nearby door had a useful creak, granting time to hide her manuscript whenever anyone approached. I learned, too, that by the time she left school at just eleven, she’d already been sent away to schools in Oxford, Southampton and Reading.


Photo: Colin Park

Afterwards, at the café, opposite, I sat outside with a warming bowl of vegetable chilli, and my hands cupped around a large coffee. It was a still moment in an otherwise busy week, and I reflected on some of the things I’d learned from reading these novels. So much was unfamiliar. This was a rigid world where the simple act of wearing pearls or diamonds in the morning could result in being labelled a woman of questionable moral virtue. Genteel society allowed for morning calls with the presentation of a visiting card left on a special tray, but these calls were short, with typically just fifteen minutes of polite conversation in the drawing room. Everyone knew the rules and adhered to them. And I realised why shrubberies make so many appearances in Georgian novels. In a constrained society where all eyes were upon you, they provided a place where couples could find some privacy.


But one of the biggest differences between then and now is the general attitude to women and our role in the world. In Jane’s society, men read the serious histories, newspapers and biographies of the day, whilst women were expected to look charming and to read nothing more taxing than a genteel novel. Marriage tied women to the whims of their husbands, but in some respects it was also a key to freedom. As Jane herself put it, “Marriage is the best preservative against want.” Charlotte Lucas in Pride and Prejudice holds her nose and marries the repellent Mr Collins in order to escape the old maid’s duty of caring for her brothers.  We all know the opening line of that novel “It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife.”

The view of an independent woman might be quite different today and I like this twenty-first century version of Jane’s famous opening line—“It is a truth universally acknowledged that a woman is capable of building her own good fortune.” Women have come a long way in the past two hundred years.


Now in these three weeks since my visit to Jane’s house, the world seems to have shifted. I wore my lucky knickers on November 8th but it did no good. The American election was a shock. In a short while, Trump will be the most powerful person in the world. This is a man who was the co-owner of Miss Universe, who told a woman she was disgusting for breastfeeding, who is anti-abortion and therefore believes that women do not have rights over their own bodies, who has made thoroughly creepy comments about his own daughter, and who has many claims of sexual assault against him. Such accusations are a constant risk for anyone in power but he dug his own grave on that one when he was filmed bragging about “grabbing women by the pussy”. “When you’re a star, they let you do it. You can do anything.” Yet despite all of this he was elected democratically. It’s interesting that non-white women were less convinced, with only 3% of non-college-educated black women voting ‘Trump’. But I find it astonishing that 45% of the college-educated white women who voted, put a cross next to his name, whether holding their noses or not, and that a massive 64% of their non-college-educated counterparts did the same.

In a few years we might look back and think we haven’t come so far after all.



Parkus Interruptus


I’ve been feeling out of sorts recently. Nothing too awful but just a bit overwhelmed and exhausted. And one of the most bothersome symptoms has been ferocious belching. I looked this up on the internet and found a list of 198 potential causes. The one that immediately caught my eye was Asiatic porpoise poisoning.

That wasn’t much help, but fortunately I had other resources to draw on. I decided to do a detox. This has worked several times in the past when I’ve felt low and as well as cutting out caffeine, wheat, dairy and sugar I thought I’d try a few supplements. An internet article suggested a cocktail of vitamins and minerals, and also spirulina. I’d never come across this substance before but discovered that it’s dried blue-green algae and is rich in protein. It’s said to be terribly good for you. My fatigue was so bad that I didn’t have the energy to question it – I just went out and bought everything that was recommended.


I started the diet on Friday morning and within a few hours I had a caffeine withdrawal headache which just goes to show how much coffee I usually drink. By Sunday I was starting to feel better and my daughter, Emma, came to visit. After lunch, I disappeared into the kitchen to make some peppermint tea and decided to tackle the algae. I stared at the contents of the packet, which were intensely indigo and as fine as talcum powder. Since I’d mislaid my glasses there was no hope of deciphering the instructions so I plunged in with a teaspoon and took a mouthful. That was a very big mistake. The superfine powder clagged all over the roof of my mouth and trickled down my throat in sticky lumps. I gagged and tried to get my breath whilst producing squeaky choking noises. Then Emma called  “are you alright Mum?”  Even though I was about to expire, the primitive desire to protect my offspring remained strong. She would be traumatised if she found me gasping with blue teeth, and green foam dribbling from my nostrils.  I concentrated on grunting reassuringly and then rushed to the bathroom where I spent the next five minutes spitting. I cleaned my teeth and returned to finish making the tea.

The next day I was making a hot drink when I remembered it was time to take some more of the dreadful stuff. It was so expensive that I didn’t want to waste it, so I stirred two teaspoons into my liquorice tea. It was bearable but very much like drinking a swamp. On Tuesday I tried stirring it into some soya yogurt. It was like eating indigo-coloured poster paint. On Wednesday I tried to cheer it up by adding some banana, but it was still vile. Like indigo-coloured poster paint with lumps in it.


When I stop and think about it, then it’s probably not surprising that I’ve felt drained recently. We each have our own hand of cards that the game of life deals in middle age. Only a lucky few avoid bumps in the road. In the past decade my bumps have included a husband with a life-threatening condition who nearly died three times, redundancy, financial ruin, five house moves, training for a new career, divorce, and the inevitable ups and downs that four children bring. Thankfully my divorce is now a scar rather than the gaping wound it was, and I’m fortunate to be happy with my new partner. But there’s one frustrating problem that remains. I can’t read.

road humps

Until my separation I was an avid reader and wouldn’t leave the house without a novel in my bag. I devoured book reviews and adored browsing in bookshops. Now I’ve fallen out of love. I read but I don’t engage. And this is a particular problem as one of my sixty treats is to read all six of Jane Austen’s novels. I liked Emma, Sense and Sensibility, and Pride and Prejudice. But Mansfield Park came after my marital bombshell and unlike the others it left me unamused, unmoved and uninterested. I made three attempts but each time made little headway. It may not be her best but I know the problem lies with me, not the writer, and that previously I’d have enjoyed it. I’ve decided for now to put it on one side and to think instead about how to heal my literary indisposition. These are supposed to be treats after all.

Recently I appreciated The Rosie Project and Kate Atkinson’s Time After Time. But I didn’t truly care whether I finished them or not. This disengagement is a loss. I know what it’s like to love books but for over three years, I’ve felt numb about reading. When friends ask about this, all I can do is shrug my shoulders. A bit of me is broken and I’ve no idea how to fix it. I can’t find any helpful advice though I have discovered that reading for pleasure is called ludic reading. Derived from ludo, the Latin for ‘I play’, this discovery is pleasing if only because I will now feel etymologically smug whenever the game of ludo is mentioned.


I’ve wondered about going to see a bibliotherapist such as the ones at the School of Life. These specialists guide readers towards literature that ‘enchants, enriches and inspires’. I think my situation might present them with a challenge but it could be interesting to explore. In the short-term, though, I’m about to go on holiday and I hope this will give me time to read. Before I leave, I’m going to spend an hour browsing at my local bookshop. Maybe a different genre, author or subject will provide the key to my literary emptiness. One thing’s for sure, though. I’m leaving Mansfield Park at home.

summer book

The Clock Struck One


In the last post, Riding on Branch Lines, I said that unexpected things often happen when I’m immersed in a ‘treat’. My fish project has been no exception. This treat has involved cooking ten different fish and was prompted by my lack of confidence with seafood. I’ve always been put off by the bones, strange appearance, and fierce warnings about overcooking.

In Fish Mondays, I described how I had problems in sourcing the ingredients at the beginning but that once I discovered the seafood section at my local Asda, this got easier. Last week was the penultimate fish and we had sea bass. However, this week, for the final flourish, things got a bit tricky. I’d exhausted all the unfamiliar species at the supermarket counter and had to look further afield. I decided that my best bet was the Wednesday market fish stall in the nearby town of Winchester. This was also a good opportunity to visit the specialist clock shop in the town centre and get some advice about my large oak mantel clock which is incapable of keeping the correct time.

I arrived early at the market with my clock in a plastic carrier bag and sure enough there was an enticing display of fish, many of which I now recognised. I deliberated over the huss but eventually opted for turbot. These are large, heavy flat fish and I bought one to share between two. I also bought some new season asparagus at the neighbouring vegetable stall.

Whilst in town I thought I’d try to solve another problem that’s been bothering me for a while. My bedroom overlooks the neighbours’ garden and when I’m getting dressed we regularly surprise one another. Although I’ve managed to avoid net curtains for most of my life, I decided recently that the time has come to give in to modesty, so when I passed a fabric shop, I went in and bought a couple of metres of the plainest muslin available.

By this time I was a bit weighed down and the bags were banging against my legs. The clock clanged as I walked and every now and again it made a half-hearted attempt at a chime. Then, as I was making my discordant progress through the town centre I spotted Winchester Cathedral and it occurred to me that I could soak up a bit of history before going home. Within a couple of minutes I was at the main door and as I stepped inside, the clock chimed one o’clock which was both embarrassing and inaccurate. “I’d love to look around” I said to the man at the ticket desk, “but I’ve got a lot to carry. Could you possibly look after this?” I handed him my clock and as I did so it attempted to strike again. “Could you take this, too?” I asked handing him a large flat parcel. “What is it?” he said suspiciously. “A turbot” I replied. “A what?” “A turbot”. “Oh, and I’ve got this” I said handing him the muslin curtain. I paid for my ticket and was just about to join the guided tour when I noticed the bunch of asparagus sticking out of my bag. “I suppose you want to leave that too?” he said, taking the words from my mouth.


The next hour was absorbing and delightful. I stood on Jane Austen’s gravestone in the nave and squinted up at the window dedicated to her memory. A pane at the top depicts St Augustine from whose name, Austen is derived. I walked across decorative floor tiles dating from the 13th Century, and then as I turned a corner towards the high altar my mouth dropped open at the enormous, ornate stone screen. I also learned about the hero who saved the cathedral. There was a great deal of structural movement at the start of the 20th century as the building was erected on a wooden raft over a peat bog. At first, the engineers tried pumping the water out but this made the subsidence worse, so in 1905 they brought in William Walker. He was a Royal Navy diver who worked every weekday for five and a half years. He would dive into the water under the cathedral and pull out the peat with his bare hands, replacing it with concrete and bricks. Each day he spent half an hour getting into his diving suit and would then work two three-hour shifts, emerging after the first one to smoke his pipe and eat a mutton pie. He obviously did a thorough job as the cathedral has only moved one millimetre during the past century.

diving helmet

The tour ended in the crypt where the Anthony Gormley statue, Sound II, stands beneath the arches. The sculptor models all his statues on his own body so it’s eerily lifelike. The crypt was dry when I visited, but in the winter it floods and so the figure is often up to its knees in water. I also learned a new word, which is something that always cheers me up. The monks used to attend eight services a day as well as High Mass. They weren’t allowed to sit down but they did have a kind of bottom rest that they could lean against. This is called a misericord.

With my ecclesiastical diversion over, I returned to the desk. “Please could I have my clock, asparagus, net curtain and turbot?” The obliging attendant looked relieved to see the back of me and my bags, and I was pleased to have spoken a sentence that I’ve almost certainly never said before. In fact I have to wonder whether anyone has ever spoken that particular combination of words.

Getting back to the fish project, it’s been interesting to discover that in common with many of the thirty-seven preceding treats, it has changed me. I now have many new dishes in my repertoire. And something surprising happened half-way through. With the first few fish I was cautious, perusing cookery books for instructions and following them carefully. But by the time I got to the fifth one, I realised that fish really is very easy to cook and this gave me the confidence to experiment. The details are on the Fish Recipes page.


sound II

And following on from the last post there are now a number of new lists on the Treats Collection page. Thank you to everyone who has contributed so far.

Fish Mondays


I’m in a funny state of mind at the moment. Much of my time is spent thinking about the films of Billy Wilder, the novels of Jane Austen, and fish. This is both absorbing and frustrating. However, the ins and outs of Hollywood masterpieces and Regency love triangles will have to wait for future posts. For now, I’m going to focus on the fishy situation.

I’m trying to cook ten different varieties of fish and to end up with a recipe for each that I feel has been a complete success. The essential test is whether I would be happy to serve it to friends. This all sounds quite straightforward but I’m having to negotiate some unexpected hurdles along the way to seafood bliss.

Before going into the details of my fishy travails, I’d better explain why I’m doing this. It’s all part of my list of 60 things I want to do before my next big birthday. I started this nearly four years ago, and have already done 38 of them. There have been some splendid highs – Glastonbury, River Café chocolate cake, riding and Berlin. And a few lows where things just didn’t work out as I’d hoped. But that’s life and I’ve learned something useful from each. And I’ve had a huge amount of fun with them. These ‘treats’ have helped me to learn more about who I am in this potentially shapeless post-children phase of life. They’ve also helped me through some challenging life events.

So… back to the fish. I put this treat on my list because although I love cooking, I’ve not got much confidence with fish. I’ve always been put off by the bones and the scary warnings in recipes not to overcook it. And then of course there’s the cost. If you’re buying for a family of six, as I usually was, you would need to regularly re-mortgage your house. I want to demystify the process and broaden my culinary horizons.

When I first told my daughter Molly, then aged fourteen, about my fish project, she looked impressed. “Are you going to catch it yourself?’ she asked. Since then I’ve had such problems sourcing what I need, that I’ve begun to wonder whether her suggestion might have been easier.

I decided to start with plaice. Something familiar and therefore not too daunting. A peruse along my extensive cookery book shelf led to the plan of stuffing it with prawns, garlic, lemon and parsley. Mmmm. I set off optimistically to the supermarket with my list. Two whole plaice, prawns, garlic, two lemons and a bunch of flat-leaf parsley. But as a fish-buying virgin I hadn’t bargained on the fact that late on a Monday afternoon, two whole plaice would be so hard to find. I wandered around disconsolately and that night we had mushroom risotto.

The first day of the working week seems to be turning into fish Monday in my house, so the following one I turned my attention to skate. I’ve had this with black butter in restaurants several times, and like it very much. Again I identified a likely-looking recipe and again I needed lemon and parsley. Also capers, butter, white wine vinegar and two skate wings. I set off purposefully in my lunch hour to track them down. At the large branch of Sainsbury’s I ticked off nearly everything on my list and then joined the queue at the fish counter. The man who was serving there looked professional in his white coat and boater. I placed all my confidence in him. But I was misguided. “Oh, no”, he said. “We don’t stock skate”. “Try Asda”. Now, I only moved to this area a few months ago and am still finding my way round the city. But my knowledge was enough to be aware that this is a fifteen minute drive away and my lunch hour was rapidly disappearing. I thanked him, swore politely under my breath and paid for the fish-related things in my basket.

Back in the car and on my way to Asda, I spotted a branch of Waitrose. I was sure that they wouldn’t let me down so pulled into the car park. “Do you have a fish counter”, I asked an assistant, ever so slightly urgently. She smiled reassuringly and pointed towards the back of the store. There, lay a beautiful array of fish, all pink, white and grey with the odd bit of parsley scattered around for some visual satisfaction. And to my relief I counted six skate wings lying there enticingly. There were four people in the queue ahead of me so I resolved to wait patiently and try not to worry about the fact that I’d already used half of my lunch hour. Salmon for the first customer. Cod for the second. Scallops and monkfish for the third. And five skate wings for the fourth. Yes. Five skate wings.

I’ve rarely disliked anyone as much as this customer, and glowered at her as the assistant packed the fish into a bag and handed them over. Then it was my turn. “I need two skate wings”, I said looking sadly at the singleton on the slab. “Do you have any more?” The young assistant went off to check. She was only gone for three minutes but this was a significant proportion of my remaining lunch hour. No luck. I toyed with the idea of sharing one wing between two of us, but that seemed a waste of effort so I did a bit more swearing under my breath and set off for Asda.

Another fish counter that looked inviting. And I counted four skate wings. There were three people in the queue so I fidgeted and glared suspiciously as each one was served. Smoked haddock, prawns and cod were dispensed efficiently and then it was my turn. “Two skate wings” I panted, waiting for the hitch. But there was none, and the nice lady assistant popped them into a bag, and then sealed and weighed it. She started making pleasant conversation but I was in a hurry and not in the mood for small talk. I tried not to look rude whilst grabbing the bag and dashing to a vacant checkout. I put it on the conveyor belt and once again was faced with a chatty assistant. As I got my purse out to pay for my one item, she smiled. ‘That was a nice easy shop’, she said innocently.

I rushed back and arrived ten minutes late. That evening I chopped and stirred and the kitchen was full of a wonderful smell that took me back to various pubs I remember from my teenage years by the coast in Devon.  The skate with black butter was delicious.

This Monday it was seared scallops with a light dressing made of garlic, olive oil, finely chopped vine tomatoes and herbes de Provence. Rick Stein’s recipe didn’t let me down. And nor did Asda. I got what I wanted straightaway and even had time for a sandwich. Things in the world of fish are looking up.