Somerset Day

As some of you may already know, despite having lived in London for the past couple of years, I am actually from Somerset, a beautiful county in the South West of England. Although I absolutely loved being in London, a part of me has always felt drawn back to the place where I grew up and I still think of Somerset as my true home.

I read an online article by the Somerset County Gazette a few days ago, which announced that in 2015 we will have the first ever “Somerset Day” – a day to celebrate all that the county has to offer in terms of business, tourism, natural beauty etc. I assume the idea is to make it an annual event from next year onward. I personally think it’s a wonderful idea, because Somerset does have a lot going for it, as a county, and it could be even better, with a bit more investment and promotion. Devon and Cornwall are seen as being the main holiday destinations in the South West, but Somerset, (whilst perhaps not having such high-quality beaches), has some special attractions of its own – the West Somerset Steam Railway and Dunster Castle being just two that spring to mind. In addition, Somerset is well known for its Cheddar cheese and cider, which are world-famous foods.

As it says in the County Gazette article, the public are being asked to vote on which one of four possible dates should be selected to mark Somerset Day. I decided to do a bit of research on the four dates and their associations, because I knew almost nothing about any of them! I have included a brief description of each date and why it is relevant below – and then mentioned my own personal favourite and my reasons for choosing it. Of course, my choice is purely subjective and I’m not trying to suggest that everyone else should vote for the same – in fact, I would be delighted if you would let me know your own opinions in the comments – particularly if you too have lived or are living in Somerset!

Unfortunately, as of today (November 29th), voting has not yet been opened, as the plan has yet to be fully formalised. However, once voting does open (hopefully in a few days), this is apparently the website you will need to go to: You can also follow Passion for Somerset on Twitter at @passionsomerset.

The Four Choices:

May 11th – to mark Alfred the Great’s gathering of ‘all the people of Somerset’
May 19th – St Dunstan’s Day

July 6th – Battle of Sedgemoor

October 21st – Apple Day

The first date refers to Alfred the Great’s stand against the Danish invasion of England in the 9th century. The kingdom of Wessex (what we now know as the four counties of Hampshire, Dorset, Wiltshire and Somerset) was the last remaining part of England not under Viking control and the invaders were closing in, determined to complete their conquest of England and crush the native people once and for all. King Alfred emerged from his stronghold in the marshes of the Somerset Levels and rallied the people of Somerset to his aid, managing to drive back the Danish and negotiate a peace, thus ensuring that Wessex remained independent and undefeated.

The second date, May 19th, marks the feast day of St Dunstan, who was born in the Somerset village of Baltonsborough around 910. He showed much promise as a young boy and when he grew up, he spent some time at court, before becoming a hermit at Glastonbury Abbey. Later, he was summoned to court by the new king and appointed a minister. After various different monarchs had come and gone, he was finally appointed Archbishop of Canterbury and taught at Canterbury Cathedral School for many years. After his death, he became the most popular saint in England for more than two hundred years.

The Battle of Sedgemoor took place on July 6th, 1685. It was the final battle of the Monmouth Rebellion, which was a doomed attempt by James Scott, Duke of Monmouth, to usurp the crown from King James II. Scott came to England from the Netherlands, landing at Lyme Regis in June. After a series of battles around the south west, culminating in the Battle of Sedgemoor, Scott and his poorly trained army were defeated. The subsequent trials of those who had participated in the rebellion were known as the Bloody Assizes – 500 of these prisoners were sentenced at Taunton Castle by Judge Jeffreys.

Apple Day, on October 21st, is “an annual celebration of apples and orchards”. It was initiated in 1990 by a charity called Common Ground, whose aim is “to explore and the relationship between nature and culture”, particularly in matters of “local distinctiveness” – traditional customs, folklore and practices that are linked to a specific area of the country. The Common Ground group is based in Dorset and the first Apple Day celebration took place at Covent Garden in London, but the Somerset connection is obvious because, as I mentioned earlier, the county is famous for its apple orchards and cider.

Whilst I love the connection to a well-known Somerset food (and drink!), I think that October 21st is far too close to Halloween and Bonfire Night to be a viable option for Somerset Day. In addition, Apple Day is already an annual UK festival and I feel that Somerset Day should be something that is completely separate from any national event, because it’s a local celebration – and one that should ideally focus on more than just apples.

The other three dates are all in the summer, which is great because it means that would (hopefully!) mean there is a better chance of good weather for whatever events take place, plus none of these dates, so far as I am aware, are close to any other annual events – apart from possibly May Day, which in any case isn’t as widely celebrated as it used to be.

With regard to May 19th, I’m not sure how many people have heard of St Dunstan and although he was a very popular saint and it’s great that someone so famous originated from our county, I would guess that hardly anyone would know who he was now – I certainly had no idea until I googled him. I feel that the Somerset connection needs to be a bit more meaningful than the feast-day of a saint who lived several hundred years ago.

The Battle of Sedgemoor is certainly more widely known and the fact that a Somerset location featured so prominently at a decisive point in the history of the monarchy is really interesting. However, this seems to be more of a chance association – after all, the Duke of Monmouth didn’t actually come from Somerset, as far as I know. Moreover, it seems a shame to choose July 6th as a day of celebration when it involved a bloody battle and some (arguably even bloodier) trials that resulted in the death or deportation of hundreds of people, including local Somerset folk.

It would have been interesting to have chosen a day such as the date in 1903 when Cecil Sharp first heard John England singing the Seeds of Love in Charles Marson’s back garden, prompting Sharp to start collecting Somerset folk songs, which would later be published and distributed to every school in the country. But I suppose this perhaps might not be particularly well-known, although I would argue Sharp deserves more recognition for his part in saving valuable cultural history that would otherwise have been completely lost. Having said that, I’m not sure if the exact date for Sharp hearing “The Seeds of Love” is known, thus it would be difficult to have this as an option for Somerset Day!

Personally I think I would vote for May 11th for Somerset Day, partly because everyone has heard of Alfred the Great and it would also link very nicely to the county’s motto “Sumorsǣte ealle”, meaning “all the people of Somerset”, which is taken from the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle and obviously refers back to Alfred the Great summoning “all the people of Somerset” to help defend Wessex from Viking invaders. This further emphasises the fact that Somerset Day is a chance for the whole county to unite in celebrating the very best that Somerset has to offer and also ties in very nicely with an important piece of ancient local history.

If you agree, disagree, or have any other comments to make, please let me know, I would love to hear your thoughts on this!

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The Rights of the Reader by Daniel Pennac

This post is not so much a review of the above book, but an exploration of the themes and ideas which are touched on by the author. Daniel Pennac is a French author, teacher and parent who writes with clarity and wit on the subject of literacy and how to encourage children to read more. He has worked with many disadvantaged children in inner-city schools in Paris and has a rather novel (excuse the lame pun) approach to the challenge of supporting and encouraging kids to engage with literature.

Why is this so important? Why is it so vital that children learn to read – and learn to love reading? Pennac spends a considerable portion of the book ripping into the old cliché of children nowadays being much more interested in watching television or playing computer games than reading and how it’s all the fault of the media, or our consumerist society which prioritises products over culture, or the innumerable flaws in the education system…

Below is an extract from a fictional conversation that Pennac describes – I imagine this taking place among a group of middle-class, middle-aged parents.

“It’s not just the programmes, it’s the medium itself. It’s passive. It makes the viewer lazy.”

“But reading is different, reading is something you do.”

“But with TV, and cinema for that matter, everything’s handed to you on a plate, nothing has to be worked at, they just spoon-feed you.”

As an avid reader myself, I know I would have automatically subscribed to this viewpoint too – particularly because I am the sort of person who would actually rather read a 1,000 word article about something than watch a two-minute video on the same topic. I have no idea why I should have this odd prejudice – although actually, viewing it now through the lens of this book, I think I’m beginning to understand…

Anyway. Later in the book, Pennac suggests that actually, TV and film can make you think and feel and dream in the same way that a book can –

“…And (he) wonders if some films haven’t, in fact, made the kind of impression on him that books have. Images from these films seem to him loaded with symbolic language. Of course he’s no expert. But he could see, with his own eyes, that the meaning of these images would never be exhausted, knew that his emotional response to them would be fresh every time.”

So if that is the case and the new and apparently more popular mediums of TV and film are equally engaging and important, why is there so much emphasis placed on Reading? Why do adults bemoan all those hours their kids spend watching TV and playing video games? Is it just the result of cultural snobbery – books are an older medium and therefore automatically have more value and importance? Or is there something qualitatively different about the reading experience?

As far as I can see – and I believe this is what Pennac was trying to explain – the difference between reading and watching something on a screen is that reading can be shared in an incredibly intimate way – namely by one person reading the book out loud to an audience of perhaps one person, maybe more. This act of love (for no one wastes precious time and energy on reading to someone if they don’t truly care for them) is something that many children experience from a very early age. The sheer joy of hearing your favourite stories straight from the lips of a loving parent (or carer) and knowing that this time is just for you and them is what creates that atmosphere of intimacy which makes bedtime stories so special. And, as Pennac so beautifully puts it, stories give us freedom. They provide us with a respite, however brief, from our daily struggles and allow us to escape for a short time into another world. Through reading, we liberate the characters on the page and allow them to live out their lives in our heads. And in turn, we ourselves are set free. Children need this outlet just as much as adults do – particularly when they start school and are faced with the quite staggering challenge of learning the Three R’s – reading, writing and ‘rithmetic – along with making friends and obeying school rules and all the other trials and tribulations involved with their absorption into the educational system. And that’s even before mentioning such problems as marital discord, sibling disputes or illness.

Of course, one could argue that films and TV also act as a form of escapism and they would be perfectly right to do so. We must look a bit closer at the act of reading itself to explain why reading a book is slightly different. As Pennac observes:

“…Reading is ultimately a retreat into silence.”

We can discuss the books we’ve read with others, we can read extracts out, or even the whole book, if we choose. But the connection between the reader and the author is ultimately very private and personal. Reading is an activity that requires solitude and the time to build that relationship with the author, to enter the world they have built for you and explore it fully.

“Time to read is always time stolen….from what? From the tyranny of living.”

So why do some people find reading so difficult? One might as well ask why anyone might find it difficult to read something. No matter how voracious a reader you might be, you will still encounter books that are too long, too dull, too intellectual, too silly – books that, for whatever reason, failed to grab your attention. Books that seemed too confusing or books that you were afraid to even try because they seemed far too complicated and difficult. The fear of not understanding is a huge barrier to reading. And, as Pennac so astutely observes, books are looooooooooooooong. They have so many pages, so densely packed with words and that mass of black marks on white paper stretching endlessly away can be completely overwhelming, especially for those who may not be quite so confident in their reading skills.

When does reading become a burden, something unrewarding and unfulfilling? Perhaps when the bedtime story becomes a chore for parents who (quite naturally) want those precious minutes back at the end of the day or maybe when children – who were initially thrilled with the independence that learning to read gave them – start to feel overwhelmed by the huge amount of effort it now takes for them to absorb a story on their own, without help or guidance. It might be that literacy was not particularly well taught in their school, or by their teacher. Possibly they didn’t receive any reading support at home from parents or carers…they might even be dyslexic or have another form of learning difficulty.

So how do we help people fall in love with reading again when they have become so disillusioned – betrayed, even, by the written word? Daniel Pennac suggests that the key to helping children to read is to awaken the desire to read, but admits that this may not necessarily solve all problems. His method, when working with teenagers who are perceived as “failures” and have, for whatever reasons, not attained the results expected of them, is to read aloud to them. He insists that presenting books like this – not watered down, abridged or even given much in the way of introduction – just letting them experience the books as they were written, letting the story unfold naturally, waiting for that curiosity to awaken inside them – what happens next, who are these people, when is the story set? He perceives the teacher’s role as that of matchmaker, gently introducing his students to literature, showing them its joys and wonders and then watching and waiting while they slowly fall in love with reading again and race to finish the book themselves before the teacher has got to the end of it in class. I’m not sure how easy this would be for most teachers to implement – as Pennac himself says, there is a certain skill in reading aloud, of not putting too much of yourself in the reading and just letting the author’s voice shine through in the way you say the words. Facial expression, tone and enunciation are all very important when reading aloud – it isn’t acting, exactly, but something close to it. In order to “make a gift of your treasures” you need to have a thorough knowledge and understanding of the story and the characters – and be able to convey that with passion and enthusiasm to a class of perhaps twenty or thirty students. No easy task.

But the magic that he describes when it does happen, when the connection is made, something clicks and the students really do fall in love with reading again – that, I can imagine, makes every little bit of effort all worthwhile.

However, as Pennac points out, it is important above all to remember that everyone has the right to NOT read. And if someone chooses not to read, this does not make them any less intelligent or compassionate than those who love reading. When a particular activity is held up as somehow more morally right and as having more worth than another activity, inevitably the joy and delight in that activity will diminish (particularly among those who want to be seen as cool and rebellious). The most important thing is that people are free to choose whether or not to read. The worst-case scenario is not someone deciding that they can live without books. It is someone being isolated from books because they have never been given the opportunity to fall in love with reading.


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News from Newfoundland

Almost three weeks ago I moved to Canada to be with my girlfriend. I’ve never lived in another country before, so this emigrating thing is all completely new to me. I thought it might be interesting to write a bit about my experience of adapting to a new culture and environment.

I suppose I should start by explaining why I moved to Canada in the first place. I met my girlfriend in the UK but she isn’t a British citizen, so she found impossible to get a job there once we had both completed our masters. Mind you, I couldn’t find a job either and I am a British citizen so… As she was unable to stay in the UK and I couldn’t go to her country for various reasons, we had to find somewhere else. We chose Canada because it’s an English-speaking country, LGBT-friendly and relatively open to immigrants when compared to other places, like the UK, for example. We ended up in Newfoundland because my girlfriend has a friend living there already, so we would know at least one person when we arrived – and in addition we both wanted to apply for graduate courses and Memorial University in Newfoundland has the cheapest tuition fees in Canada. So here we are.
It’s been two weeks already, we have a little basement flat (or ‘apartment’, as they say here), my girlfriend has started her graduate course at Memorial and I am now waiting to apply for a work vacation visa because my course plans didn’t work out quite as I expected, for reasons which I won’t go into here because it would take an entire blogpost just to explain the whole sorry mess and it’s frankly far too dull and irritating anyway.

So, Newfoundland. Here is a list of things that I knew about Newfoundland before I arrived:

1) It is actually an island off the coast of Canada.
2) It has a very small population for its size
3) The main city, St John’s, is also very small, for a city
4) The winters are not as cold as other places in Canada but still definitely colder than the UK (average temperature in winter is 0 and it can apparently go down to -10 or lower).
5) You can go hiking, whale watching, kayaking and many other wildlife/adventure-oriented activities
6) Newfoundland dogs come from there

And here is a second list of things I have learnt about Newfoundland from speaking to locals and just generally absorbing the atmosphere:

1) It’s pronounced NewfinLAND, not NewFOUNDland or NEWfoundland. The first two syllables run together a bit and the emphasis is on the last syllable.
2) The “Newfie” accent is an odd but charming combination of Canadian, Irish and Somerset, if you can imagine that. If you can’t, here’s a video clip:
This is because the European settlers who came over here mainly originated from Ireland and South West England.
3) Newfoundland has only recently become part of Canada (in the last few decades) and some people who live here still aren’t happy about it.
4) Many rural communities are very isolated
5) It’s apparently rare to see Newfoundland dogs but we’ve already met two people who own them
6) It can get VERY windy here and I imagine that in winter, when it’s cold and snowing, this is going to be an absolute bitch.

In addition to all this, people are very friendly and helpful – and drivers are also very courteous! I don’t know if this is a Canadian thing or just a Newfoundland thing, but if you start crossing the road (even if it’s not at a pedestrian crossing), cars will slow down and patiently wait for you – even on main roads. This is pretty amazing if you come from somewhere like the UK, where drivers are extremely reluctant to slow down for pedestrians and will probably honk their horns at you if you try crossing anywhere that isn’t an official crossing – or indeed if you use a pedestrian crossing just after the green man has gone. I like the fact that pedestrians seem to have a stronger presence on the road here – and this is despite the fact that St John’s is definitely more car-friendly in terms of distances to things like the mall or the supermarket. I had a car in the UK but it seems too much hassle to bother getting one here. This makes it a bit tiresome when lugging groceries back from the supermarket, but at least means that I am getting a bit more exercise!

I’ve decided to keep this quite a short post because I’ve only been here three weeks and therefore I’m still gathering impressions and reflections about the place, but I will make notes on new things as I come across them and write another blogpost fairly soon! I’ll leave you with some photos that I’ve taken of St John’s, which will give you a rough idea of what the city and surrounding area looks like – the first four are of the harbour, the next eight were taken at the top of Signal Hill, which is a short walk (and a hard climb!) from the harbour and the last one is of the street that we’re currently living on, all quiet and peaceful in the weekend sunshine!

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Pond Life

So this evening I took a picnic dinner to the park after work. It was still beautifully sunny and warm. I found myself a bench in a quiet corner of the park and ate my dinner. I messed about on Twitter for a while and then thought I might attempt some mindfulness meditation before heading back home. After struggling to concentrate for a few minutes, I focused on a pink flower in the middle of the small pond just in front of my bench. For some reason, staring at this made me want to investigate the pond more closely and see whether there might be any small fish in it. I crouched down on the ground at the side of the pond and peered into the greenish depths…


And a fascinating world opened up before my eyes. I couldn’t see any fish, but after barely a minute I realised that the pond was teeming with all sorts of different, non-fishy creatures, some of which I could identify and others which were unknown to me. Pond society also seemed to be clearly divided into levels, with different creatures in each one and also a few that moved between the levels. For example, there were tiny flies that landed briefly on the water, so light they almost seemed intangible, their bodies not making even the slightest ripple as they touched the surface. Then there were a couple of pond skaters, their splayed legs making faint impressions on the water as they paused before swiftly gliding to pastures new. Just below the surface, there were a couple of water boatmen, their elongated back legs looking exactly like a pair of oars. One very large one which hovered very close to the edge of the pond seemed to suffer from periodic attacks of nervousness, during which it would hide beneath a conveniently placed leaf, before cautiously venturing out again some moments later.

Further down in the depths there were bright red water mites darting about and silvery-transparent shrimp-like things whirring briskly along in short spurts, as if powered by a slightly dodgy motor that threatened to give out completely at any moment. I also spotted a couple of worm-like creatures wriggling about right at the bottom of the pond – these may in fact have been leeches, Google tells me, but I can’t be certain.

The most interesting creature, however, was one which moved from the depths to the surface and back again with a swiftness I would not have believed possible from such a large, chunky creature. This was a water beetle, a good few centimetres long with black wing cases and strong, thick legs. It would shoot up from nowhere and then pause at the surface, upside-down with its bottom poking up in the air. After a minute or so, it would plunge back down into the water again and disappear. I was frankly baffled by this – at first I thought it must be coming up for air, but when I noticed it was upside down, I decided that couldn’t be possible. However a quick Google search on my return to the flat proved that my original guess was correct. The beetle carries an air bubble lodged between its outer wing cases and its abdomen and breathes in the air through little holes in the abdomen known as spiracles. When the air has been used up, it returns to the surface and refreshes its supply. Essentially, the beetle carries round its own scuba tank!

I was crouching there, gazing into the water, for a good twenty five minutes, by which time it had begun to get slightly cooler and the light was starting to fade. It struck me that pond-watching was exactly like a smaller-scale version of scuba diving over a reef. It was all there – the vicious shark-like  predators (water beetles will attack almost anything and are also known as ‘water tigers’), the large, turtle-like creatures (water boatmen), the coiling sea serpents lurking at the bottom (leeches) and the busy little fish buzzing in and out of the weeds (water mites and shrimp). I can just imagine how exciting it would be to shrink down to the size of a tadpole and go scuba diving in a garden pond – but terrifying too – tadpoles are popular prey! It would be a fascinating experience and probably just as full of wonder as diving in the open ocean.

I have included a picture of the pond below, to illustrate the fact that even though it is clearly a man-made environment and designed purely for ornamental purposes, it does in fact contain a large number of easy-to-spot creatures and taking the time to observe them would be well worth a few minutes of your day.







*All photos apart from the top one are from Google Images*

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Video Killed The Radio Star…Or Did It?

Last weekend I was having a discussion with some friends about the quality of British television. Our main conclusion was that most of the programmes broadcast in this country seem to be reality TV shows, game/quiz shows, adaptations of classic novels and documentaries. Whilst there is nothing wrong with such programmes in and of themselves, there seems to be less and less original drama on television and a greater reliance on long-running programmes with a guaranteed audience that seem to have been going since the beginning of time and will probably keep going for a similar period. New drama series such as Broadchurch seem to be the exception rather than the rule – whereas in America, they are apparently popping out hit shows faster than you can say “boxset”. Obviously America has more money to throw at new TV series – the production costs of shows like Game of Thrones or Breaking Bad must run into hundreds of thousands of dollars per episode. But the success of series such as Broadchurch – and the popularity of US TV series in this country – shows there is a hunger for exciting and innovative new drama – and it can be done on a slightly more modest budget. Perhaps one factor is the risk involved in commissioning a new drama series – if it doesn’t go down well with Joe Public, an awful lot of time and money has just been wasted. Of course there is a risk with any new programme, but reality TV and gameshows cost much less to make – you don’t have to employ as many actors and writers, for a start – so if you fail to produce a hit, at least you won’t have lost as much money.

But if British television is currently going through a dry spell in terms of creativity and innovation, the same cannot be said of British radio – and in particular, of the BBC radio stations. If you want to be up-to-date with the latest trends in pop music and culture, Radio 1 is packed to bursting with fresh new tunes and enthusiastic presenters. Radio 2 provides a slightly broader range for those people whose tastes in music go back further than the last ten years. Radio 3 gives you art and culture in profusion – opera, plays and concerts galore, interspersed with documentaries, for those who want to learn a bit more about the art and music they’ve just heard. I must confess, I know very little about Radio 5 or about 6Music, although they’re apparently both great for sport and alternative/fringe music respectively. But Radio 4. Ah, Radio 4 is a different story altogether. It has hours of excellent original comedy and drama (as well as the requisite number of adaptations – there were some complaints recently about a new version of “Pride and Prejudice”, which, to be fair, has already been adapted more times than you’ve had hot dinners), along with fascinating factual shows on a quite mind-boggling range of topics, various quiz shows and unclassifiable oddities such as the Shipping Forecast. It is a veritable cornucopia of audio delights.

For those of you who are not keen on the idea of a non-visual medium, let me now try and persuade you of its merits. Firstly, rather like reading a book, listening to the radio gives your imagination some exercise and allows you to create your own mental picture of the characters and scenery. But, unlike reading a book, you do get given different voices for each character, sound effects and even, in some cases, a soundtrack. To highlight the effectiveness of radio as a broadcasting medium, I will give you a personal example. A year or so ago I listened to several Shakespeare plays broadcast by Radio 3, including Twelfth Night, Romeo & Juliet and The Tempest. The latter, in particular, stood out for me because I had previously seen a live outdoor performance of it and despite these optimal conditions, I hadn’t thought much of it. But the radio version was terrific. The lack of visuals allowed me to concentrate more on the superb imagery conveyed by the words and the sound effects used for Ariel made the spirit seem far more ethereal and other-worldly than watching an actor on a stage wearing a wispy skirt.

Just in case you still needed convincing, here is a short list of some of the other advantages of radio when compared to television.

  • No licence fee
  • Entire series of several programmes available to download for free on iTunes
  • Mobile devices do not require such a strong internet connection to play the programmes
  • Even people outside the UK can listen to radio programmes on iplayer

So don’t delay – switch on your radio today!  *advert jingle*

And finally, here is another list, this one is includes some of the fabulous radio programmes available to you right now, for free!

In Our Time

Great Lives

Poetry Please

Words & Music

Desert Island Discs




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Cooking On Gas

About a year or so ago I decided that I wanted to get better at cooking. Although I was capable of making basic meals, I very rarely bothered cooking something entirely from scratch, because frankly it seemed an awful lot of time and effort when it was only me who was going to eat it and I didn’t think it would be possible for me to use up all of the fresh food I would need to buy before it went out of date. So most of my dinners consisted of subtle variations on microwaved quiche, some new potatoes and a handful of peas. Whilst this was clearly not very adventurous, it did at least contain one proper vegetable and had not come out of a small plastic tray. However, I knew that some of my friends could make much better food than this and having watched a few episodes of various cookery programmes on TV, I was inspired to try and improve my culinary skills. I was also harbouring a secret desire to be the sort of person who can invite a few friends round for dinner, whip up something amazing entirely from scratch and then bask in the glowing admiration of all those present! I just love the idea of being a Domestic Goddess, à la Nigella Lawson. In addition, food and cooking is very much about home to me, as I imagine it is for a lot of people. One episode of the Food Programme focused on people’s food memories and listening to their stories was just so wonderful and heart-warming, because the memories were so closely tied to loved ones – usually parents or grandparents.

Fast forward twelve months or so and I have just finished the biggest baking session of my life. Last weekend I made pumpkin muffins, Dutch speculaas biscuits, chocolate fudge, peanut butter fudge, coconut mice, mince pies AND I marzipanned, iced and decorated the Christmas cake I made a few weeks ago. I had in fact made the peanut butter fudge whilst keeping a sharp eye on (and occasionally basting) the honey and garlic pork that was roasting in the oven, which was not perhaps the best idea, because although the pork ended up being delicious, the fudge was somewhat dry and over-crumbly. I probably shouldn’t try making more than one thing at once – at least until I’ve become considerably more accomplished!

This transformation from reluctant cook to someone who is so enthusiastic about making food that I received a slow cooker, two recipe books, an oven glove, a set of cookie cutters and some cupcake cases for Christmas, has done far more than improve my meals, however. I have become more confident in my ability to provide for myself and take on new challenges, as well as becoming much more informed (and opinionated!) about food and the way we make and eat it. I started a recipe blog a while ago but my fear about the copyright implications of reproducing other people’s recipes on my blog – even if they were fully credited – meant that I didn’t get very far with it. However, having seen from other, more well-established recipe blogs that it is possible to cite other people’s recipes on your own blog without bringing down hordes of lawyers on your head, I shall almost certainly be posting on that more often, probably starting with some of my favourite recipes that I’ve used a lot in the past year.

For now, here is a short list of the blogs, books and programmes that have inspired, encouraged and enabled me to foster a new-found love of food and cooking:

  • BBC Radio 4’s The Food Programme. I have downloaded every single episode of this that I could find on iTunes and I am now working my way through them, from 2010 right up until now. It is absolutely fascinating – there are episodes about different types of food, different cooking methods and different ways of producing food. It’s just glorious.
  • – This blog, written by Jack Monroe, shows you how to prepare healthy, filling meals on a VERY tight budget, whilst interspersing recipes with her views on politics, food banks and other vital issues. Important stuff, particularly in today’s tough times of unemployment and austerity.
  • The English Kitchen – Another recipe blog, this one is written by Marie, who moved to the UK from Canada 12 years ago and fell in love with English cooking. I have probably used more recipes from her blog than any other website – just superb.
  • Google – I know there are specific websites which allow you to type in random ingredients and then provide with a list of things you can make using them, but having tried a couple of those sites, with varying degrees of success, I have decided that the most effective is still Google. Typing “chicken, courgette, coconut milk” into the search bar (I urgently needed to use up the latter two ingredients that evening) and finding a delicious curry recipe using all three was a particular highlight.
  • Supermarket magazines – notably Asda, which is where the Christmas cake recipe came from. Their November and December issues were absolutely chockful of things to make for Bonfire Night and Christmas – and they also had price breakdowns for several of their recipes, which is very helpful if you have a limited budget.
  • I have a few cookery books as well, but I don’t think I have used one in particular more than any of the others. You can get recipe ideas from anywhere really – books, TV and radio programmes, websites – some types of food packaging even have a recipe or two on the back.

That list is just to give anyone else who is interested in boosting their culinary skills some idea of where to start. As I said, I will definitely be posting more recipes on the food blog I started – my New Year’s Resolution might be to post one a week – a tall order, perhaps, and I don’t know who would read them, exactly, but it will be a nice record for me, a sort of online personal recipe book!

Anyway, thank you for reading and I wish you all a deliciously scrumptious Christmas and a very happy New Year!

NB. The title of this post comes from the phrase ” to be cooking on gas”, i.e. “to be making good progress and to be likely to succeed” (thank you Free Online Dictionary), which is pretty much where I see myself on the ‘Complete Novice —> Michelin-starred Chef’ Chart!

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What A Difference A Job Makes

I was planning to write a post about food and my new love of cooking, but I’ve been reading and listening to so many different things related to that subject recently that I was finding it difficult to condense my thoughts into a coherent post. Instead I’ve decided to write about my new job. Partly for myself, to remind me how far I’ve come in the past month or so, and partly in case any of you might be interested in reading about my progression from joblessness and despair to feeling like a useful and productive member of society again. 

To re-cap, I finished my masters course last summer and then started looking for work as an assistant psychologist or research assistant. After applying for many different jobs, only having interviews for unpaid positions and being told I needed more experience in order to get even those roles, I decided I needed to widen my search considerably, so I applied for a few teaching assistant (TA) and learning support assistant (LSA) jobs, which were advertised as being suitable for psychology graduates. A couple of agencies got back to me VERY quickly and invited me for interviews. I got my current job a couple of weeks later and I’m now working as an LSA at a primary school. 

I never, ever thought I would be able to do this kind of job. My “nightmare jobs” – i.e. things I never imagined I would be capable of doing – included nursing/care worker roles and teaching. I have never been “good with children” – even as a child I found it difficult to communicate effectively with other children! My brother and I never had any young cousins and I have no nieces and nephews, so I had very little experience of being around young children before this. So I was very nervous about working in a school environment. I did have a trial day at the school before I started working there, which was actually immensely helpful, because it meant I had at least a vague idea of what the school was like before going in for my first day of work. 

In the first week, in particular, there were several incidents which I found almost completely overwhelming, the most memorable one being on the third day, when it was raining at lunch break, so the kids were inside their classrooms during playtime. I was left in charge of a class of about 25 6-year-old kids, on my own, for about half an hour. It was terrifying. But I survived it and it was an excellent learning experience, just like pretty much everything else I’ve done since I’ve been there, really! Most of what I’ve learned so far has been picked up from observing how other teachers deal with things and then putting that into practice when I have to deal with a similar situation myself.

Things I have done for the first time since starting this job:

1) Supervised a whole class of children on my own for brief periods of time.

2) Comforted and applied first aid to injured children

3) Sorted out playground disputes

4) Used Scary Teacher Voice on naughty children

5) Used facepaints

6) Attended a professional review and arranged personal goals and targets


Things that I have found unexpectedly joyful and brilliant:

1) Listening to kids read (I have 1:1 reading sessions with five children each week)

2) Hearing their cries of amazement at an arts-and-crafts thing I made as an example for the teacher to show the class (seriously, you would have thought it was a masterpiece of craftsmanship from the reaction it got!)

3) Being recognised and waved at from some distance away in the playground/lunch queue etc

4) Seeing them smile in response to encouragement, praise or even general interest in their chosen activity 

5) Using my Scary Teacher Voice on naughty children (to good effect, I might add).


Conclusion: I have learnt an incredible amount in the past few weeks. I’m doing a job that is challenging, tiring and sometimes still slightly overwhelming. But I love it. I don’t know whether I love it enough to completely change my career and become a teacher, (especially now I’ve seen how much hard work, responsibility and strength of character is required for that role!), but it is a good job at a lovely workplace with great colleagues and I am enjoying it very much, which is more than I could possibly have hoped for back in October.  






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