Thursday, May 27, 2010

How many more stoats must die?

The biggest unanswered question in the aftermath of the Queen’s Speech on Tuesday wasn’t “What happens next at Oldfield School?”

It wasn’t “You know those national ID cards? How would you feel if you were a young person who’d forked out £30 on one so you could buy booze easily, and now you can’t get a refund? Because we’re just about to scrap them?”

It wasn’t “What did the Duke of Edinburgh do to win all those medals? And is he going to stay awake this time?”

It wasn’t “How soon can we book a holiday to avoid election fever in May 2015 once they introduce fixed-term parliaments?”

It wasn’t even “How can David Cameron and Harriet Harman be so chummy one minute while they’re walking into the House of Lords and then rip seven colours of whoopsy out of each other a couple of hours later in the House of Commons?”

No, what everyone was asking – well, some people, anyway – was this: “Why did half the people at the State Opening of Parliament look like they were extras in a costume drama set in the far-away kingdom of Ruritania?”

If you have the time and the inclination, take a quick look at the website of Messrs Ede and Ravenscroft, robe-fettlers to the gentry.

Here you will discover that at the tippy-top of the tree of ennoblement, dukes wear robes with four rows of ermine and gold, followed by marquesses with three-and-a-half rows. Mere barons bring up the rear with just two.

There’s a load of stuff about coronets too but it’s all a bit too complicated and technical.

The robes, you will be intrigued to learn, are made from scarlet superfine faced cloth, and “rarely need replacing”.

All of which sounds a bit like a certain lumberjack shirt which makes occasional appearances at Dixon Towers when the proprietor is called upon to undertake wintry DIY duties. And just as smelly.

Here the similarity ends, though. Because when the duking day is done (or marquessing, or baronising), the wearers don’t just stick their robes in the back of the dukely (or marquisly, or baronial) wardrobe. They send them back to Ede and Ravenscroft for safe keeping. E&R wouldn’t touch the Dixon plaid with a barge pole.

But before you become too entranced with the day-to-day romance of the British nobility, remember this: uncounted stoats died to supply those trimmings.

Isn’t it time for the killing to stop?

And then there’s Black Rod.

Bloke in funny britches gets door slammed in face. Bloke knocks three times on door. MPs open door and come quietly. What’s all that about? Don’t answer, please: life’s too short.

Space prevents us from going into the duties of Black Rod’s four counterparts, the Rods Green, Scarlet, Blue and Purple. They do exist, though, and they don’t live on Cloudbase with Colonel White.

It’s 2010, and we’re broke. And in the Houses of Parliament, once a year at least, they’re partying like it’s 1859. Does anyone really care?

Thursday, May 20, 2010

World cup fever starts here

Not long to go now. From the moment that the very first driver clipped the very first cross of Saint George flag to the roof of their car, there has been no escaping it.

Yes folks, it's the World Cup. Or to give it its full name, the 2010 FIFA World Cup South AfricaTM .

It starts on June 11, little more than three weeks away.

And if all goes to plan England will lift the gleaming golden trophy out of its official Louis Vuitton travelling bag a month later on July 11.

How can we be so sure? Well, two city types at JP Morgan bank have done a bit of quantitative risk analysis and come to the conclusion that the fixture schedule gives England their best chance of a win since 1966. And seeing what a great job city analysts have done on the economy over the last couple of years, who could possibly disagree with their predictions?

1966, though. The year when football stayed at home. The year when some chancer nicked the Jules Rimet trophy and left it in a South London hedge, where it was found by Pickles the wonder-dog. (Who, for trivia fans, met his end soon afterwards, choking on his lead while chasing a cat. A true hero.)

1966, the year of World Cup Willie, the first and cheekiest World Cup mascot. The year when the merchandising really got going.

Four years later, the contest moved to Mexico. In those days people could still afford petrol, and Esso cashed in on cup fever by producing a collection of 30 coins depicting the members of the England squad and crafted of the finest aluminium.

Woe betide any 1970 parent who went to a Shell garage to get their petrol. Small boys in those days had no interest in collecting tokens for glass tumblers. They had a brace of Alan Mullerys, five Gordon Bankses, three Martin Peters and no Bobby Moore OBE, and Esso was the only place they could complete their collection. Except in the murky waters of the school swapsies market, which was already flooded with those Captain Scarlet bubble gum cards that you could arrange into a giant jigsaw.

Such was the rare quality of the Esso coins that a complete set of 30 now sells on ebay for at least £6.50. What a return on your dad's original investment in petrol: not even enough to put a tenth of a tiger in your tank.

Still, there's one thing to be grateful for. At least the powers that be at FIFA have scheduled England's fixtures to avoid any clash with the Weston Village Open Gardens day on Sunday, June 13.

Our first-round tussle with the USA is just one day before that, and it would have been a pretty bad show if all Mrs D's horticultural efforts over the last months had come to nought because everyone was at home or in the pub watching England's glory boys on their first step to international triumph. There is justice in the world after all.

Thursday, May 13, 2010

Recipes for disaster

It's been more than a year now, according to the uncannily accurate archiving system at Bath Chronicle Towers, that this column/blog/whatever touched on the pink and meaty subject of SPAM®.

And from the capital letters, and the nifty little R in a circle, which it took the best brains in the IT department two and a half hours to find, you can no doubt tell that we're not talking here about Unsolicited Commercial Emails.

No, this is the real deal – 90 per cent pork, enrobed in clear salty jelly, and no less sustaining than it was in the dark days of World War II, when the Allied armies marched resolutely to the fray on nothing more than a bellyful, and whole families survived for weeks on SPAM® fritters, a few turnips and a dubious fish called the snoek.

(The snoek probably deserves a column all of its own, but it's not going to get one. Suffice it to say that it rhymes with "snook" and could either be a pike, a perch or a moray eel. And you'd only want to eat one in times of dire national emergency. Like in about six months' time.)

Anyway, Mrs D came back from a shopping expedition the other day with a reminder that SPAM® is now and forever shall be with us, in the shape of SPAM®: The Cookbook by Marguerite Patten.

And as often when there's the slightest suggestion that impulse buying might be involved, she deflected any criticism by claiming to have "got it in a charity shop".

We'll let that one ride.

Now, the Dixon household prides itself on culinary eclecticism and adventurousness, but this cookbook really does take the biscuit.

It includes recipes for such delicacies as Chicken Cordon Bleu (boneless breast stuffed with SPAM®); SPAM® Slippers (aforesaid luncheon meat, chopped and spread on a roasted aubergine); SPAM® Steaks in Port Wine (what it says on the tin); and Penny-Wise Paella (SPAM® with budget ingredients like peeled prawns, mussels on half shells and saffron, which the fragrant Marguerite admits is the "most expensive spice in the world".)

There are many more recipes, but what ultimately persuades you that none of them should be tried out for real is the SPAM® Porcupine.

Perhaps in recognition of the savoury luncheon meat's wartime heritage, it looks like one of those mines with prongs sticking out that you see at the seaside converted into a charity collecting box.

The body of the mine is a raw cabbage, or a grapefruit if you're feeling adventurous. The prongs are cocktail sticks. And onto the prongs are stuck alternating lumps of gherkin, pineapple, avocado, cocktail onions, glacĂ© cherries, and – yes, you guessed it. That meat.

Heston Blumenthal, look to your laurels. Jamie Oliver, eat your heart out. We have seen the future, and it is SPAM®.

We won't be using the cookbook any time soon. But if we decide to enter Masterchef, we'll know where to turn for inspiration.