Saturday, 18 December 2010

Reading, handwriting, and becoming illiterate

I love the Middle East: the sights, the smells - oh, the smells! - the sounds, the architecture, the music, the history, the name it, I find it fascinating. One of the things to do on my 30 before I'm 30 list is to learn Arabic to a conversational level. For all that I've travelled to the Middle East up until now, I've never managed to get beyond the basics of speaking and listening to preliminary greetings, and "thank you" and "no". I haven't even learned to swear! Reading and writing was beyond me. I could recognise the "Exit" sign - a useful thing when you're driving down a highway and wondering why your lane is about to disappear - but that was about it. For the record, it looks like, but doesn't always have the English translation.

I'm taking a basic Arabic course through university - 2 hours a week of class, plus 15-30 mins a day of homework and drilling. We're learning the alphabet 5-6 letters at a time, and some weeks we have vowels and vocalisation marks thrown in for free. There's 28 consonants in the Arabic alphabet, 3 of which serve double duty as loonnng vowels. Like, really long: it's one of the many features of the language which has no English equivalent. Then there's 3 short vowels which aren't usually written and 11 or so other marks or versions of letters to learn.

I've just discovered what it's like to be illiterate. It's horrendous. I love books. I always have done. Ever since I was a little kid, books have been keys to other worlds, with the author's words providing a framework around which my imagination can fill in the other details. When I read, I don't just read. I vanish inside my own head, with the author leading me by the hand through the world they have created and shared through the printed word. I'm terrible at watching films based on books that don't stick to the original point. I'll read anything that's lying around, including very trashy fiction.

And now...I can't read. At least not in Arabic. I can slowly and painfully spell out some words, but it is letter by letter. And if there's more than 3 or 4 letters in a word, chances are I've forgotten the beginning by the time I get to the end, and I end up spelling it out 2 or 3 times before all the bits stick in my short-term memory long enough for me to string them together into a full word.

Adding to the complication is that many letters share the same basic shape, distinguishable only by the placement of dots. 1 dot or 2? Above or below the line? Or no dots? Are there no dots because I forgot to write them, or does this basic letter shape have a legitimate form with no dots? I can manage 20-30 minutes of this before I get a headache and have to stop. It's worth it though. It really is. Knowing so little means there's tangible progress every single day, and every day I can look at a string of Arabic and recognise more and more of the shapes. I don't have all the keys needed to open the door, yet, but I'm definitely getting a clearer picture of what's beyond the door when I do get to open it.

The other thing that has struck me is that my handwriting (in English, French, and anything else based on the Latin alphabet) is terrible. But in Arabic, it's turning out to be not too bad. It's not the beautiful calligraphic script which Arabic is famed for, such as this panel in a mosque:
but it's not hideous.

Compare the English scrawl of my title with the repetitive Arabic words here:

For what it's worth, I've tried many times over the years to neaten up my handwriting. I really have. I can do a decent Black Letter when I need to and a passable cursive hand, but it takes aaggeeess. I've never managed to make either of them something I can do at speed. And let's be honest, in today's world of meetings, lectures and use of computers, how often to any of us write anything extended or slowly by hand? Even my shopping list is done on my Android phone these days. But maybe, by learning a new script at this age instead of being the impatient so-and-so I was a child, I can learn to write Arabic not just neatly, but beautifully. That really would be an achievement!

Friday, 17 December 2010

Boats to build

I've been doing a lot of work lately with Colourful Coach over at Colour in your Thinking. After a fairly intensive session this morning, my brain presented me with the fragment "...with these two hands..." and calmly insisted I figure out where it had come from. Usually when this happens it's fairly easy to figure out which of the many songs I know a fragment comes from, and why my brain thought this was an appropriate use of time. Today, this wasn't the case. I had no idea where they came from, apart from a vague sense it might have been a hymn from school days. (It wasn't. Or, if it was, I have yet to find it.) This is slightly odd, since I'm not remotely religious. Spiritual, yes, but not religious. A quick hunt on Google showed that the phrase is not exactly uncommon, so I sat and ploughed this fantastic site where lyrics are organised by theme/topic/motif, not artist.

All4One's "I Swear" contains the line, but my brain was quietly insistent that this was Not What It Meant, and would I please Just Keep Looking. Right, brain, if you're so certain about what you mean why can't you just tell me?! Scanning the rest of the first page, one song - credited to two different artists - turned up repeatedly and caught my eye. Whether or not I knew this song beforehand, I do now. And I love it.

Boats to Build
Alan Jackson, and/or Guy Clark

It's time for a change
I'm tired of the same ol' same
The same ol' words, the same ol' lines
The same ol' tricks and the same ol' rhymes

Days, precious days,
Roll in and out like waves
I got boards to bend, I got planks to nail,
I got charts to make, I got seas to sail.

I'm gonna build me a boat with these two hands
It'll be a fair curve from a noble plan
Let the chips fall where they will
'Cause I've got boats to build.

Sails are just like wings
The wind can make them sing
Songs of life, songs of hope
Songs to keep your dreams afloat

I'm gonna build me a boat with these two hands
It'll be a fair curve from a noble plan
Let the chips fall where they will
'Cause I've got boats to build.

Shores, distant shores,
That's where I'm headed for.
Got the stars to guide my way
Sail into the light of day

I'm gonna build me a boat with these two hands
It'll be a fair curve from a noble plan
Let the chips fall where they will
'Cause I've got boats to build.

Wednesday, 8 December 2010

Butternut Squash and Parnsip Soup

Or, what do I do with these vegetables and half a bottle of Sauvignon Blanc? Note that as a boozy amuse-bouche this could be served straight after pureeing, at which point it will serve LOTS of people!

Ingredients: makes about 2 1/2 pints
1 butternut squash, peeled and cubed
3 parsnips, peeled, cored & chunked
1 slosh olive oil, maybe 3 tbsp?
1/2 bottle good Sauvignon Blanc
Salt to taste
1/2 pint semi-skim milk

  1. Preheat oven to 175C (fan). Put vegetables in roasting tray and toss in olive oil. Roast for 45mins, tossing once.
  2. Put half the vegetables in a blender with half the wine. Puree til smooth. Add remaining vegetables and wine in batches until fully incorporated and silky smooth.
  3. Place soup in pan, stir in 1/4pt milk. Bring to rolling boil, cover leaving a gap for steam and leave for 20mins, stirring occasionally. Add salt to taste, and more milk if required
  4. Serve with crusty bread.

Thursday, 2 December 2010

What I've learned so far about being a Master's student

It's coming up for the end of my first term, and the workload is finally feeling manageable. It's been an exceptionally rubbish couple of weeks academic-wise, preceded by an exceptionally rubbish couple of weeks personal-life-wise, preceded by 4 weeks of exceptional stress, what with moving down here and everything. And suddenly there's 9 weeks of a 10 week term gone!

The things I need to learn from for next term are:
  1. History is something I can do. It uses all the same transferable skills as my undergrad degree and my old job, but in a different form. Primary source analysis, worldview of writer, motivation for writing, evidence and sources used by writer etc is basic stuff I can do with my eyes closed. Historiography (what has been written by other historians) is remarkably similar, but also includes which school of thought their work is based in. I need to make the distinction in my own head about which of my readings are primary and which are historiography, and section my notes accordingly.
  2. This is my academic level. This is the point where for the first time (apart from my abortive attempt at a Further Maths A-Level) I cannot coast by doing the minimum. This means I have to work at it. The course on Ethnic Diversity was easier because it's using the familiar IR/social science methods, theories and examples from my BSc, albeit arranged in a newish way. The two History courses are within my reach, but I need to work harder at the background, because the discipline is unfamiliar, as are the subjects. The former I can't do anything about, and the latter was a deliberate choice, so I have to make that work for me.
  3. I will not be comfortable speaking up in class unless I'm sure I know what I'm saying. I've been told I make excellent points when I do speak, but I should do so more often. This means I need a two-pronged attack: firstly, to be more comfortable agreeing with another viewpoint but for a subtly different reason - my contributions don't have to be unique; secondly, doing sufficient reading that I have a grasp of the issues in question AND the contextual background in which they reside; thirdly, paying more attention to the seminar questions when preparing, rather than just assuming that my brain will arrange the information into coherent argument on the fly. I can do that, and it's an important exam skill, but it's not the best way to approach an in-depth 2-hour seminar.
  4. Stick to the timetable I've written, where this is a "job" from half-nine to half-five each weekday. There's more than enough hours in the week to do all the studying and a smattering of extra-curricula activities, but not if I get locked into the cycle of faffing in the day, studying til midnight then sleeping as late as possible to catch-up. I know this. I really do.
  5. Get used to the fact that, unlike my undergrad, there are weekly non-negotiable deadlines. I don't have a year in which to fit a year's work: I have a week in which to fit this week's work, and another week next week in which to fit that week's work, and so on. I handled regular reports and meetings with ease in my job, so I need to apply the same techniques here - see above re: timetable.
  6. I need to learn to cite properly. So I'll write a couple of paragraphs each week for each seminar with citations and ask the Professor to check that I'm citing appropriately. This will also force me to crystallise my thoughts ahead of time.
  7. This is supposed to be fun. In order for it to be that, I need to have the confidence I can get the work done and not be stressing about it, which means, I need to do all the things listed here.

Finally, I guess, I need to come back to this list every week during Lent Term and make sure I am, in fact, learning the lessons rather than just observing them, filing them and ignoring them.

Thursday, 18 November 2010

Chicken and leek in white wine sauce

It still bemuses me that I can't thicken sauces with cornflour to save my life, yet I can casually, and with no thought at all, make a perfect roux every time. So, it must be easier than you think - give it a go!

1lb chicken thighs, skinned
1tsp chopped garlic
1tsp dried tarragon
Splash rapeseed oil
375ml white wine (Visionario Binaco Delle Venezie 2008)
1 large onion, diced
2 large leeks
1 1/2 oz butter (unsalted)
1 1/2 oz plain flour
100ml semi-skimmed milk

Heat oil, garlic, onion and tarragon. Sear chicken thighs. I used a large frying pan for this stage, then turn down heat, decant into saucepan, add 250ml wine and chopped leeks. Simmer for 30-45 mins (in my case, while roasting squash, parsnip and carrot to go with it) and make white sauce.

Melt butter over a low heat, then stir in the flour until it forms a paste coming cleanly away from the sides of the pan. I used the frying pan, thereby deglazing it at the same time. When you have your paste, remove from the heat, add 100ml cold wine, and beat until smooth. I randomly added a further 150ml or so of cold milk, beat until smooth. Next I strained the wine stock from the saucepan with the chicken and gradually added this to the sauce. When it was all incorporated, I poured it back over the chicken and leek mixture and simmered for a further 5-10 mins or so. You can add more wine (or milk, or water) if it gets to thick during this stage, but do it carefully!

Thursday, 11 November 2010

Remembrance Day: an apolitical, secular mark of respect

They shall not grow old, as we who are left grow old;
Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn.
At the going down of the sun, and in the morning:
We will remember them.

(From "For The Fallen", by Laurence Binyon)

I was musing over this post this morning, but this article in the Daily Telegraph has changed my slant somewhat from quiet respect for the Serivcemen and Servicewomen who have given their lives, to quiet fury at the disrespect shown by some people. Firstly, one of my professors ignored a student's request for 2 mins silence at 1100 when his class over-ran its 1055 finish. Then I found the above article, and feel that it demonstrates a complete lack of understanding of the tradition, as well as an ironic lack of appreciation that many of those who died, did so to enable the continuation of free speech and assembly.

Remembrance Day is, formally, held to mark the end of the First World War and to commemorate all those who have fallen in the two World Wars, and other conflicts since. To me, it is a chance to remember and reflect on the futility of war, and to respect and to honour those who have died for their country. To me, the country, race, religion or creed of the fallen is irrelevant: the whole of humanity has suffered from the fighting of the 20th and 21st centuries, and all deserve respect for their sacrifice.

From the fields of Ypres on a cold, wet November day:

to the heat and humidity of the River Kwai and Hellfire Pass:

Allied and foreign troops' cemeteries and battlefields stretch across the globe. This is not a day for religion: soldiers of all religions have died. This is not a day for politics: regardless of the rights and wrongs of the wars, soldiers of all political stripes and none have died. This is not a day for points-scoring: it won't bring back the dead, and it won't help us finding lasting, peaceful solutions to the conflicts raging today.

Today is a day for respect, for rememberance and for honour.

"When you go home, tell them of us and say:
For their tomorrow, we gave our today"

(From a poem by John Maxwell Edwards)

Wednesday, 29 September 2010

Lottie Loves: Finishing School H is for Hair

I have to admit, this was another one I read and my heart sank. I have an ambivalent relationship with my hair. While I would love to have long, wavy hair that looks awesome when slightly tousled and slept in/wind-swept, the reality is that I don't. I have fine hair, with next to no body and very little bounce. It is a gorgeous colour (red) although I've been hennaing it for the last 6 or 7 months to get it more auburny/chestnutty. Style-wise, though, I want something that I can wash, towel-dry and leave and it will still look fabulous. The only style I've found that works is a layered bob, with the longest layer at my chin and the shorted somewhere around my nose, plus a fringe.

I've had the same style for the last 3 years or so - before that it was very long, and I only grew it for the wedding to my (now ex)-husband at his request. So I like the style, but I've just moved cities and needed a new hairdresser.

4 times in the last week - once at home and three times in London - I've been collared by people trying to sell me a hair dressing and photoshoot day package. I'm not sure whether they think I desperately need the help or something...! Anyway, I booked one, and today I have the appointment. So far, so good. Way too much product, which means I'll have to wash it on Friday, but she seems to have done a competent job.

So that's the first bit of the challenge done. The second, do spend 5 minutes doing something other than a brief brush for a week, I'll start tomorrow. I've found a few pretty hair clips (40s style oversized flowers one each in red, green and cream) and a fake-peal hairband. I shall try to wear each at least once for the next week.

And I still need to do the Glamour morning. Urk. Wonder if Lottie will notice if I cheat and combine the two on the same day? :-)

Saturday, 25 September 2010

Thursday, 23 September 2010

Lottie Loves: Finishing School G is for Glamour

I read this and my heart sank. I've just moved into a backpacker hostel for 2 weeks while I'm waiting for my shiny new flat to be ready. Glamour. Right. With only half my clothes, sharing a bunk room with two guys and a girl, and one small mirror between us. I'm pretty lazy in feminine terms at the best of times, so this just fills me with horror.

However. Having less clothes available is forcing me to be inventive. So yesterday I bought some red Mary Jane shoes in patent leather with a cuban heel. Ostensibly they're to replace the apricot, flowery ballet pumps I've just worn through, but they do make me smile every time I wear them. Today I've put them with a green shirt dress, a wide red leather belt, some khaki leggings and a bolero I made myself in a red flower fabric, trimmed with red satin ribbon. It's a start.

The most inventive I get with my hair is to put clips in it to hold my fringe out of the way when I can't be bothered to wash it, or when things are truly bad, to cover it with a wide elastic alice band. I don't even blow dry it - I have a well-trained hairdresser who cuts it so that my wash-towel-go routine still makes it look fabulous.

I'm pretty good at wearing perfume, and dramatically less good at not nibbling my nails.

So my two elements of this challenge are:
1) Stop chewing my nails for a fortnight...countdown starts now, I can chew them on 7th October, if I want to;
2) On at least one morning, do something interesting with my hair for reasons other than covering the fact it needs a wash.

Lottie Loves: Finishing School F is for Fitness

I will hold myself to account for this. I will hold myself to account for this. I will hold myself to account for this.

So. 30 mins (at least) of exercise (at least walking) every day for a fortnight. Right.

Day 1 - Tues 21 Sep - walked from Bloomsbury to Waterloo, and around Rotherhithe. Easily 30 mins.

Day 2 - Weds 22 Sep - walked around Rotherhithe again, from Waterloo to Bloomsbury via Aldwych, Bloomsbury to Holborn and back.

Day 3 - Thur 23 Sep - 25 mins on the cross trainer, walk from Bloomsbury to Aldwych and back. Further walking this evening to get myself to the cinema and back, possibly via a pub.

Day 4 - Fri 24 Sep - Miles of walking today, some of it in heels, some of it in more sensible shoes. Well over an hour.

Day 5 - Sat 25 Sep - Didn't get to the ceilidh, but did walk to uni and back. I probably just about managed half an hour.

Day 6 - Sun 26 Sep - Disaster on public transport! Dancing not as energetic as I'd hoped. Still, racked up just over half an hour.

Day 7 - Mon 27 Sep - I went to the gym today. 25 mins on the cross trainer, plus assorted walking. Much rushing to the flat and back probably added another 25 mins.

Day 8 - Tue 28 Sep - More walking to uni and back, and around Fresher's Fayre, including up 10 floors by stairs. And back down again.

Day 9 - Wed 29 Sep - over 4 miles today. Something about being in central London makes me thing nothing of a half-hour walk, whereas at home I'd take the car or bike every time. Possibly the amount of time it takes to get down to the Tube lines and back up again?


Day 10 - Thu 30 Sep - to uni and back. Navigate Victoria - a marathon in its own right! - and walk from coach station to friends'.

Day 11 - Fri 1 Oct - nothing specific planned. Walking into town for dinner and back, I guess.

Day 12 - Sat 2 Oct - nothing specific planned. Will find something

Day 13 - Sun 3 Oct - walking to coach station and navigating public transport to get to a friend's flat in West London. Does carrying bags count extra???

Day 14 - Mon 4 Oct - more humping of bags around on public transport. Possibly the gym too.

Sunday, 22 August 2010

Dreams, redux - warning, long!

I did Lottie Love's D is for Dreams challenge about 10 days ago. It seemed to spark my subconscious into actually thinking about the bigger life questions, because I want to revisit that challenge.

First though, I know two bloggers doing the "101 things in 1001 days" challenge: Skippy & Minirhi and Rachel is doing 30 Things Before I'm 30. I have my own list of 30 before I'm 30 - the idea of doing a new thing every 10 days for three years just seemed overwhelming, given my impending move to London to become a student!

My 30 before I'm 30 list
1) Visit Egypt again - Nile, Pyramids, Cairo, Aswan etc. Possibly a dawn hike around St Catherine's Monastery.
2) Visit Jordan (Completed: October 2010)
3) Visit Israel, especially Jerusalem (Completed: April 2011)
4) Hike the Inca Trail
5) Visit Venice before it sinks (New Year 2010)
6) Hike the Two Moors Way (Complete: July 2010)
7) Hike/cycle another long distance path (Coast to Coast? LEJOG? Appalachian Trail?)
8) Visit my relatives in the Orkneys (Booked for September Summer 2011)

Learning things
9) Learn Arabic, at least to basic conversation level (In progress: Oct 2010 - May 2011)
10) Get my Master's degree (In progress: LSE 2010-11)
11) Learn archery (starting summer 2010 - basic qualification done)
12) Get my Mountain Leader (Summer) Award (2010-2012)
13) Take singing/banjo/guitar lessons
14) Record singing/banjo/guitar/piano
15) Learn one dance style (In progress: Lindy Hop & Charleston aka Swing Dancing)

Making things
16) Make a corset
17) Knit myself socks from 4-ply yarn (In progress: Dec 2010)
18) Find my "style" (House of Colour day, summer 2010)
19) Make more clothes than I buy
20) Do another year of "Homemade Christmas gifts"

Charity/ethical things
21) Volunteer overseas for 2-4 weeks
22) Become an Army/Sea cadet Instructor
23) Volunteer in a soup kitchen or homeless shelter over Christmas (complete 2010)
24) Extend fairtrade / organic / happy meat shopping ethics beyond groceries
25) Stop sending Xmas cards (apart from close family) in favour of charity donations

Other things
26) Go to a professional opera production (2010/11)
27) Go to a professional ballet production (2010/11)
28) Run a 10k race or do a Sprint Triatholon
29) Buy a house
30) Plant a vegetable garden

On a related theme, I have a list of things I'd like to accomplish while I'm at LSE. Some are duplicated of the above, but some are new. This list will probably grow before it starts to shrink!

Things to do at LSE
1) Graduate. Duh. Perhaps this should read "Graduate well". I'm not going to put myself under pressure to get a Distinction since I've finally learned that Academic Achievement Is Not The Be All And End All.
2) Learn Arabic
3) Intern in politics or a think tank
4) Audition for a choir...and ideally join!
5) Have an article published, eg in The World Today

Finally, my subconscious presented me with a life-long dream: I've had variants of this for several years, and some elements have persisted for over a decade. I have no idea how this would work out in practice, given my current circumstances. However, Lottie's challenge was to dream regardless, and maybe the universe will arrange things in such a way you can spot the opportunities to make it happen.

My life at some indeterminate point in the future...
...looks very little like my life at present or even in the foreseeable future. I want to have experienced (not just seen) much more of the world. I love learning about other cultures and history, and standing in the wilderness with a vista, and no signs of human activity. That's pretty much (one of) my idea(s) of bliss. However, I've also learned that however much I love to travel, I need somewhere to call home, somewhere I have roots in both physical and social senses.

Thus, I need to combine the wilderness with a place I can truly call home. Apart from one 4.5 year period, the longest I have lived anywhere in the last 14 years is 18 months, and while I'm very practised at boxing up my life and moving it, I'd really like to not have to do it too many more times. What I see as my dream future then, is this:

I have a smallholding, which is self-sufficient year-round for vegetables, any fruit the UK can grow, meat & eggs. There is a small amount extra which I preserve or sell. The smallholding takes in visitors of several types. There's a camping barn & field, and probably a bunk-house. In the term-time, school groups come to work the soil, tend the animals and learn basic cooking with ingredients they have picked themselves. In the holidays, families and groups of friends come and stay for holidays. There's a space which can be used to run yoga, photography, music and other "retreat" style workshops. I have two adopted* children and a stable relationship with a significant other. I have time to raise the children, and be active in local & charitable organisations. I grew up in a village with a real community feel, a summer fete, a maypole festival and all the other trappings of a quintessential English village: I'm determined to find a corner of England where those traditions live on, and make my home there.

*I really can't envisage the whole pregnant-and-baby stage. I've tried, and my mind insists that The Dream starts when they're at least toddling. I've given up arguing with it on this point.

Saturday, 21 August 2010

Lottie Loves: Finishing School E is for Eyes (and Easy-peasy)

So the challenge this fortnight had two parts. Firstly, to have an eye test. I have these every 2-3 years anyway to keep my prescription up to date. So, check.

The second was to wear mascara every day for a week. I'm usually pretty good about this, but have been making effort to do the bare minimum of eyeliner (green or brown) mascara (brown) and lipstick ("Spiced Apple" from Clinique, apparently discontinued).

Roll on Lottie returning from holiday and the next Challenge!

Tuesday, 10 August 2010

Lottie Loves: Finishing School D is for dreams

I have lots of day dreams. My problem isn't not dreaming about the future, it's knowing which dream to turn into reality. A goal is, after all, just a dream with a deadline. I read an article in Red magazine this month about dream boards, aka mood boards. I'm really, really, not a visual person (and I've done a couple of learning preference things which proved that!). So, sitting down with a pile of magazines, some scissors and some pritt stick is fairly close to my idea of hell. However, I do like concepts and abstract relationships.

I've just read the first chapter of "Women who run with the Wolves" by Clarissa Estes. A post-doctoral Julian psychoanalyst, she is also the keeper of oral stories for two family traditions. The first story she tells is of La Lopa, the Bone Woman. La Lopa gathers the bones of the dead, and sings them back to life. She days, "Come, gather the shards of your soul, sing from beyond your heart, and heal yourself." All the bones and all the songs are within each of us, waiting to be uncovered. I know what I shall dream about tonight.

Saturday, 7 August 2010

Lottie Loves: Finishing School challenges A to C

I've never been particularly good at "girly" things. But I'd quite like to be, and I've - via a very roundabout route - come across Lottie Loves and her Finishing School.

A is for Attitude
The first fortnight's challenge is to think about your Attitude, in the form of things you like about yourself.

In no particular order, I like:
  • My intellect, and the way I can combine unrelated approaches and concepts to solve problems
  • How I feel when I make an effort to keep my home and myself in shape FLYlady was a small miracle when I came across her method earlier this year.
  • My self-belief: I can do (almost) anything if I put my mind to it - and so can you!

B is for Bra
To avoid TMI, let's accept I've done this one.

C is for Clothes
Around 18 months ago, I "had my colours done" with House of Colour. I found out that I'm an Autumn, and I suit browns, golds, deep greens and reds. This shouldn't really have been a surprise, but it was. I now understand that if I'm wearing black the answer isn't to apply for make-up in an attempt not to look dead, it's to wear brown instead. I followed HoC's advice and threw out some of my wardrobe that was in the "wrong" colour, and have been very good about only buying colours that are "right". I haven't really been ruthless enough about getting rid of all the wrong ones though. So...

Earlier this month I had the second step, an Image Day. This told me that I'm a Natural Ingenue, which means I like - and suit - fitted, demure (but not prissy) and pretty clothes and accessories. Fortunately, all my favourite vintage style clothes fit this. It's also taught me that if I'm going to wear trousers, not only should they not have a (masculine) fly or pockets, but I need to wear them with heels. Case in point - I wore frilly t-shirt, brown cords and a shrug with flats for part of the day, then switched to heels, and instantly felt and looked better. The Image Day ended with the injunction to throw out anything unsuitable from the wardrobe, which coincidentally is the C is for Clothes challenge from Lottie.

I've binned some shoes, got some others ready to take to a charity shop, and have a large suitcase over half full of clothes that don't fit, don't suit me or will otherwise never be worn again. It's proving hard to do but I'm slowly getting there by breaking it into chunks: I'll just sort this rail. I'll just sort that drawer. I'll just sort my shoes. I reckon another couple of hours and it'll all be done. Then - revelation - I'll have enough room to hang everything properly AND be able see what I have and what I now have a reason to buy to fill a gap.

Bring on the shopping!

Friday, 6 August 2010

Darn I'm good: beef in red wine sauce

As usual, I've made it up as I've gone along, then decided I'd quite like to be able to recreate the dish at a later date. This is the first time I've tried to thicken a wine-based sauce: normally I just accept that cornflour is the work of the devil and don't even try. However, I make a mean roux-based white sauce, and figured it can't be that different, right?

So roughly:

Ingredients - serves 2
1lb beef (I used chuck and rump steak) diced into 1" ish lumps
Half a bottle or so of full bodied red wine (I used a New Zealand Merlot)
8 or so baby leeks, cut into 1-2" lengths, about pencil thick
1 tsp chopped garlic (I use Very Lazy garlic)
1 1/2 oz butter
3/4 oz flour
1/2 tbsp horseradish sauce
(You could also add mushrooms, but my guest doesn't eat them, and I didn't have any!)

Melt half the butter over a low heat, stirring in garlic. Add beef, and stir until coated, stir in leeks. Cover - leaving a steam gap - and simmer gently until beef is browned. Add 1/2 pint red wine and simmer over a low heat for a further 20 mins. Ish.

In a small pan on an even lower heat, melt the remaining butter. Stir in the flour a little at a time until you have a thick paste. Remove from the heat. Add the remaining liquid from the meat pan a ladle at a time, stirring thoroughly to ensure no lumps. Add more wine until the sauce is liquid again.

Pour sauce over meat, stir in horseradish sauce a little at a time, tasting between each addition. The exact quantity will depend on the flavour of the wine and how much extra wine you added! (Add chopped mushrooms at this point, if using). Cover - with a steam gap - and simmer very gently until one of the following occurs: 1) your guests arrives; 2) the sauce is thick enough for your liking; 3) 15 mins has elapsed.

You could also leave it to cool, then reheat later and serve, but watch the skin that forms on the sauce and stir it in well!

I served with beetroot, courgette, carrot and cauliflower roasted with olive oil, oregano and sage.

Monday, 2 August 2010

Not quite Two Moors Way Update #2

I really am bad at this regular updates lark. The real part #2 of the Two Moors Way trip should go up later this week.

In brief news - my Marmot Grid tent was awesome. The Primus spider stove was awesome, and had what seemed to be a never-ending gas cartridge. My old, old hiking boots were sadly not up to the job though. After 10 years, 4 continents and well into 4-digits of miles, they are unequivocably Past It. The rolling sole rolls no longer, and has a depressed ball of the foot tread instead of a raised one, making walking less efficient than with an normal shoe, instead of more. There's zero cushioning left in the soles, so every rock and rough surface can be felt on the feet: think the princess and the pea. They rubbed in brand new and interesting places, making for judicious use of tape as the week wore on. Finally, I tried some brand-new-out-of-the-box boots on Friday, and they were more comfortable than my old broken-in (=beat up) ones.

Time for some new boots before I go to Jordan in October!

Wednesday, 21 July 2010

Two Moors Way Update

Monday: 7 hours hiking, 13 miles covered, weather good, terrain moderate.

Tuesday: 4.5 hours hiking, maybe 7 miles covered, weather lousy, terrain difficult.

By half three we were soaked to rhe skin on the longest, most exposed section of moor on the route. With no shelter and no habitation to be seen (and next to no visibility courtesy of the cloud layer we'd been in almost all day) we pitched up for the night. We had just about enough dry kit and plenty of food, but not much water. No, going out in the rain to collect some was not an option!

Wednesday: writing this after 4.5 hours, 8 or so miles, weather lovely, terrain easier.

Shortage of water meant no breakfast, but after three hours my body revolted and we stopped and heated a rice pouch intended as half a dinner. That 400 cals got me to Chagford, a pub lunch and many, many drinks of water.

Wednesday, 26 May 2010


I'm in the market for a new tent. I have a 2-man fair weather one I acquired while backpacking around New Zealand in 2003. I was collecting a hire car, and the couple dropping one off at the same time had a tent they didn't want cart home with them. They refused payment and were glad to be rid of it, whereas I was glad of a tent. Several years of experience with this tent have taught me several things.

My tent is a square, no porch, with telescoping poles which are clipped to the inner and tied to the outer. It has a door, and one guy rope on each panel to the side of the one with the door. It goes up inner first.

Firstly, the British weather requires more than 2 guy ropes. I'm quietly amazed it took until last summer to prove this, but that might be due to my fair-weather camping preferences! Anyway, pitched up on an Atlantic headland last August, my tent bowed so far in the wind and rain that I had less than half the floorspace usable. With one person and a week's worth of beach holiday kit, this was clearly Not Working. Additionally, another member of the party had a fiberglass pole snap in his tent that night while acting as a windbreak for the rest of the party's tents. So, tents for the UK need guy ropes on each corner and at regular points along panels.

Going up inner first. I've always known this was a bad plan but my last trip proved it. After a weekend of sunshine and a night of torrential rain, I'd hoped to get most of my tent down dry: I knew the groundsheet was a lost cause from the rain. As I got to the tent to strike camp, it started to hail. I dived inside, waited out the shower then cleared up other things for an hour while the tent dried. Literally as I got back to try again, it started to rain. With an outer-first tent, you can pitch or strike and keep the inner dry, whereas with mine, if it's raining.and you're pitching or striking, everything gets wet. And it did this time! Next tent must be outer-first!

Not having a porch. Porches are good for putting wet and muddy kit in and allowing you to keep the inside sleeping bit for dry kit and sleeping. Not having a porch means wet and muddy kit shares your sleeping space and everything else getting cold and muddy.

Clipping and tying tent to poles. On the one hand, I like this because there's no faffing around with telescoping poles and fabric sleeves with poles coming part inside them. That said, there is a knack to the sleeve-pole combination and it doesn't require the manual dexterity, which can be a lacking in cold and wet conditions!

Finally, weight. I wasn't too bothered about weight with the old tent (and don't look a gift horse in the mouth!) but for the Two Moors Way hike, packed weight is crucial. Modern 1-2 man tents can weigh in at under 1kg, and mine is considerably heavier than that.

So, in summary, my new tent must:
1) be robust enough to handle the worst of the British weather;
2) go up outer first. This also means the outer can double-up as an emergency shelter if needed;
3) have a porch;
4) have a sleeve system for the poles, although this is fairly standard for outer-first designs;
5) be as light as possible.

These pretty much sum up the Force10 Helium, which builds on the success of Vango's original Force10 design. So subject to an in person inspection, I guess thus is what I'll be buying in the next few weeks.

Monday, 17 May 2010

Why exercise is bad for my health*

Since my last post I had my gym fitness test  & programme written, and I've finally managed to do all three workouts on the programme.  The fitness test on the Friday of the bank holiday proved that my core and upper body strength is non-existence, and my hamstrings are tighter than a violin string, but my BMI, body fat and blood pressure are all excellent. None of this was news, but it does highlight some areas to work on in addition to the cardiovascular endurance I'll need.

Over the bank holiday weekend, though, I went camping and spend 3 nights under canvas, running around a muddy field during the day (in addition to hiking, I LARP with Curious Pastimes).  Courtesy of this and the torrential rain on Saturday night, I picked up a throat infection swiftly followed by a kidney infection.  Thus, long cardivascular workouts didn't seem a terribly good idea since I couldn't afford to get dehydrated.  Two courses of antibiotics and 10 very frustrating days later, I finally started to feel right again on Saturday.

I picked up the fitness regime again last Friday, yes, before I felt 100%.  That one centred around upper body strength, doing 2 sets of each of 2 exercises followed by 5 mins hell-for-leather on a cardiovascular machine to raise my heartrate, repeated three times.  To top if off, the following evening I went to play laserquest, for 3 x 15 min games with a handheld , dual-trigger laser gun.  Two days later and my arms have just about forgiven me!

Today I went to do what I knew would be the hardest of the three workouts, and I was right.  15 mins of biking on a level 10 random programme is the light relief part of this one!  It features cross trainer (5 mins, warm-up, easy), summit climber (10 mins, 1:4 gradient, 5.5kph average speed, HARD), bike (easy) and rowing machine (in which I aim for 2000m in 10 mins and managed 1900. I would have managed the 2000 but forgot to breathe properly part way through and gave myself  a stitch. By the time I'd eased off and recovered, I couldn't make up the distance.)  Then, to complete the feeling of being a wrung out dishcloth, it rounds off with 2 sets of straight abs crunches, 2 sets of upper back extensions and 2 sets of oblique crunches.  This evening, I appear to have succumbed to another throat infection, so it's another early night tonight before getting back into revising for university Finals tomorrow. 

*Would I have got the throat infection if I hadn't gone to the gym?  Probably.  But it made for an ironic post title, so I used it.

Wednesday, 28 April 2010

On fitness, or lack thereof

I joined a gym almost a month ago, in part to help me train for the Two Moors Way hike from 19th to 25th July and in part because my skirts were too tight.  I've been a bit half-hearted about going, and I know from the experience of my Gold Duke of Edinburgh's expedition (55 miles in 4 days, with full kit weighing approx 35-40lbs) that hiking is No Fun if you're not physically prepared.  I also know that at the moment, I'm subconsciously dividing life into Before Finals (last exam is 10th June) and After Finals, so the 19th July is not only firmly After Finals, but is a whole month afterwards, so feels too distant to motivate myself to go the gym this week, or next, or probably the week after that.

So, I signed up for the Cotswold Way Challenge, hiking 13 miles on 19th June.  I'm doing it with a full pack, because I could hike the route tomorrow if I weren't carrying any weight.  I could even, probably, hike the route with a full pack through sheer bloodymindedness, but I wouldn't be able to do anything for a day or two afterwards!  To stave off the temptation to resort to determination, I'm hiking the Malverns the following day, covering approximately 10 miles along the spine, also with a full pack.  And then I'm going to go the gym the day afterwards: on past long distances hikes I've discovered that day 1 isn't too bad, day 2 is horrendous and day 3 is the beginning of the currve for my body into "Ah, right, you want me build muscles?  Ok, I can do that." and it starts to become fun again.

Just to remind my body what it's supposed to be doing, three weeks after that I'd going to hit the gym on Friday, go to the Peak District, the Lake District or the Breacon Beacons that evening, do two full day hikes with kit aiming for 12-15 miles a day, then come home and go back to the gym on the Monday.  Two weeks after that, I start the Two Moors Way for real.  These two training days, and three or four of the Two Moors Way ones will count towards the 20 Quality Mountain Days needed to attend the Mountain Leader (Summer) course.  I'm determined to rack up at least 10 this year, so between these & the 5 or so from previous years, I'm well on the way to meeting that target.

Meandering back to the point - my hiking navigation is better than this, I swear! - I discovered a new machine in the gym today.  I'd been toddling along on the rowing machine and the elliptical (cross) trainer, burning around 350 calories in half an hour but not really feeling like I'd done anything.  Today, I noticed a Summit Climber, much like one of these.  And boy, was it hard work!  The calorie counter reckoned I burned approximately half what the elliptical trainer claims, but I'm sure it was much, much harder work.  And, it targets all the muscles groups that you use when,well, climbing summits really.  I've booked a fitness test & training programme creation session for 9am Friday morning (Yuck.  What was I thinking?!) so hopefully I'll persuade the trainer that the Summit Climber should feature heavily in my programme.

On a final note, I realised that if I'm hiking up a hill as steep as that machine was simulating, I stop every 10 mins or so to catch my breath.  The programme didn't allow me to do that, and forced me to keep going.  I guess if I get used to 30min programmes, actually climbing a hill with breaks will seem like a doddle.  That's the theory at least...

Monday, 26 April 2010

The obligatory introduction

I've been hiking, on and off, for about a decade.  For me, hiking is about getting away from everything: there is simply nothing to beat sitting on the top of a mountain or tor or rock, looking around  in the sunlight and seeing no signs of human habitation in any direction.  This makes me fairly hopeless at the traditional English Country Walk After a Pub Lunch, because by definition you're near roads and a pub, and after a proper pub lunch, there's no way I can manage the sorts of ascents leading to the glorious solitude I crave, or at least not without feeling sick, which takes all the fun out of it.

In a fit of "Just Do It" a couple of weeks ago I bit the bullet and signed up for the Mountain Leader award.  I've done more than enough days over the years to meet the pre-requisites (20 Mountain days to attend an initial course, a further 20 before attending Assessment) but haven't logged them.  I've listed 5 from the last 7 years which I hope to use as part credit, then gain a further 5-7 in 2010, along with the required first aid qualification.  in 2011 I'll try to rack up a further 10 and the initial course, and depending on how that goes will attempt to complete the qualification in 2012.

Some of my past hikes which stand out in memory are training for the Ten Tors event on Dartmoor, although a sprained groin 4 weeks before the event put me out of the running for taking part.  I've done my Gold Duke of Edinburgh's Award including a week in the Picos De Europa for the 4-day expedition.  I've hiked the Tongariro Crossing in New Zealand, crossing a plateau which found fame as Mordor in the film of the Lord of the Rings. I've climbed Pen-y-fan in Wales and walked around Loch Maree and the Cairngorms in Scotland and walked up a Swiss valley - whose names escapes me - towards the Italian border (and back again).  All of these were either unsupported or centre-based, although in 2008 I went to the High Atlas mountains in Morocco for a 2-day trek supported by a mule and muleteer, and in October this year I'm off to Dana Nature Reserve in Jordan as part of a KE Adventure holiday supported by 4WD.  Before then, I'm hiking the Two Moors Way to raise money for World Vision UK and hiking part of the Cotswold Way as part of the Cotswold Way Challenge.  On my long-term wishlist is to thru-hike the Appalachian Trail, but that's an enormous undertaking and it's likely to be 5 years or so before the rest of my life is amenable to a winter of crazy amounts of training and 6 months of unsupported hiking up the East coast of the USA.

It's going to be a busy year!