Monday, January 31, 2011

Gone for a soldier

I took the boy up to The Mall on Sunday to watch the annual march of civil war re-enactors. No, not the civil war that I grew up with, but that older one - Cavaliers v. Roundheads. I've been living in London for over a decade - but I'd never heard of this gathering (fourth Sunday of every January) which commemorates the execution of King Charles and the brief establishment of republican government in England. I couldn't tell if they were celebrating or commiserating (though some of them were laying a wreath) - but since I suppose there were some for both camps, they'd chosen to draw a veil over the old rivalries.

Buddy loves his knights, so I assumed he'd like some of these 17th century blokes who stand somewhere in between knights of old and modern soldiers in terms of uniforms. And since I'd been away for work for a couple of days, I thought I'd take him into town for a bit of treat.

When we arrived at Green Park station, it seemed a little more crowded than I'd anticipated and as we walked through the park I could see hordes of people around Buckingham Palace. Turns out it was changing of the guard time (I didn't even know they did it in the winter, but they do - every other day instead of daily in the warmer months). We hit The Mall just in time to see the guards arriving in all good pomp and playing a suitably militaristic tune.

The boy was enthralled.

Watching the guards

And although he enjoyed it when one of the re-enactors showed him how a match lock worked, he wasn't as excited by the civil war stuff as I thought he might be.

Learning how to fire a match lock

We followed the march all the way down to Horse Guards Parade, but he lost interest as they milled around before ostensibly forming a square. (Inadvertently, and despite the steward's advice we managed to line up between opposing armies).

Form up

But he got excited again when he dashed into the museum of the household cavalry. I refused to pay for entry, as I've already had more than a lifetime's share of regimental museums touring around with his father and I wouldn't have wanted the Vol-in-Law to miss out on the opportunity. I had to literally drag him away from the displays.

He was intrigued by those standing guard as well, though he didn't want to pose with the sentry as many tourists do.

Household cavalry

I couldn't quite understand why he was so interested a couple of bored squaddies, when there was a whole history parade going on outside with many of the members of the civil war society ready - eager even - to be nice and explain stuff.

But then I thought - even a three year old can tell the difference between a serving soldier and some middle aged, slightly nerdy, history buffs. And those household cavalry types are pretty intriguing. We saw some at the Wimbledon stables open day a few months ago - and those tall young fellows with their polished breastplates, snug uniforms and their thigh-high shiny boots...the boy could hardly tear his eyes away and to be honest, I had trouble looking elsewhere, too. Those uniforms were designed to make the girls swoon and the boys sign up.

Household Cavalry Helmet

And it looks like they've found a potential recruit.

Friday, January 21, 2011

I heard the call of Cthulu or how I cooked me up a mess of squid

Growing up listening to national public radio there was sometimes a spoof spot with a furrin type chef with some kind of Adriatic accent who would answer your questions about cookery and entertaining. And no matter what the question, the answer was always squid.

Q: I'm hosting a children's party for 10 five-year-olds, what do you suggest serving?
A: eh-squid, keeds love-a the eh-squid


I do love squid. I'm not a huge fan of deep-fried or breaded calamari, but I'm often in the mood for squid. Partly, if I'm honest, for the shock value. And the more closely it resembles the original animal, the better.

But I've never prepped it from scratch. I've bought some processed squid from Portugese delis over the year (you can get frozen stuffed squid!) and I've been known to use tinned octopus on pizza. In fact, I've never once taken any animal from corpse to plate. Unless you count shrimp from the Gulf, which I don't.

But this week I saw a show with Jamie Oliver -- Suppers to Save Our Seas as part of the Fish Fight series about choosing more sustainable fish resources. One of his top 10 alternative fish choices was squid. He started with the cleaned body, did some scoring, added some lime juice, popped it on the grill - and blammo - easy squid. Out loud I said "Hey, maybe we should get some squid."

Buddy latched onto this instantly. "Squid! Squid! Squid!" he said. For a boy who won't eat anything unless it's breaded, I took this as a hopeful sign that maybe we could expand his palate. I mentioned the squid idea to the Vol-in-Law and he was almost equally enthusiastic. But I know he does actually eat squid.

So over the week there have been casual mentions of the squid thing and last night the boy asked if we were having squid for dinner. Wow! So I promised we'd go shopping for squid today. And he reminded me when I picked him up for nursery. And we did..

At the grocery store, they only had the one squid. A giant looking thing, that I'm pretty sure took down the Nautilus. I was starting to chicken out on the squid idea.

"Do you really want a squid?" I said.
"Yes, yes, yes!! Squid!"

So...look away now if you're on the squeamish side.

squid unwrapped
Squid unwrapped

call of cthulu
I looked up instructions on squid butchery. Each step was described as easy. It wasn't. But honestly, it probably was easier than cleaning a regular fish. It's just that when I pulled and twisted the head, the guts didn't automatically all come out. Extra knife work was required.

And there were other surprises, too. For example, never did I dream that I'd overhear a conversation from our bedroom that went like this:

Daddy, look at this!
Is that from the squid?

squid bone
There was an awesome bit of cartilage - looked like a bit of clear plastic. The boy was intrigued.

I forgot to take pictures of the cleaned, skinned squid tube - but here's the final product. And it was tasty.

Squid's up
Squid sauteed in olive oil with peppers and garlic. Fresh parsley. Served over linguine.

Squid on a plate

But you know what? The boy only nibbled a tiny corner from a bit of squid and then only because we made him.

Keeds love-a the eh-squid? Not around here they don't

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

The wrong kind of BBQ

pit bbq and diversification

I work in a building that sees a steady stream of politicians. And the great thing about politicos is that they're never backwards about coming forwards. So a single word exchanged in the ladies' led to "Oh, is that an American accent? Where are you from?"


"Staying long?"

"Been here 15 years so far."

"Ah, the thing I remember about Tennessee are the BBQd ribs with all that lovely sauce."

Instant reaction: bristle. Was just about to explain that that I'm from Middle (or when I'm thinking about it differently East) Tennessee and our BBQ is usually pulled pork. And ribs are really associated more with the West Tennessee BBQ tradition, when I heard the door close on her way out.

Just as well, really - wasn't sure if she was ready to hear about the socio-bbq map of the Southern US and prairie states.

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Reaffirming the patriarchy

Last night I took the boy swimming, so we were a little late home. The Vol-in-Law was still in the salt mine of paper marking, so I turned on the tv and told Buddy that I was going to start making dinner.

"No!" he told me sternly. "Only Daddy tells you to make dinner."


"Buddy, I can autonomously choose to..." my voice trailed away and silently finished with "make dinner for the menfolk."

It's true that kids say the durndest things, but where do they get this stuff? It's not like he doesn't come from a long and distinguished line of working women. From a "pop star" of the turn of the century to small business owners and factory workers and artists, his female progenitors have been hard workers and money makers - and I'm not even sure I've got enough fingers to count the degrees and certificates held by his grandmothers.

How do you even counter this stuff? Am I destined to have that resigned look that you often see in women who live in a household of men? I don't want to spend the rest of my life living in a frat house.

And that's not all. One of things he'll say regularly is "I got a penis. Daddy got a penis. You not got a penis. Ha, ha, ha." Bloody hell. Did Freud ever describe penis hubris?

Saturday, January 15, 2011

Fireman Sam can't save the day this time

Fan Fiction is a great tradition of the Net. Taking well known series from television or film and writing additional stories in line with the characters and setting. I've never done any fan fiction before, but the Vol-in-Law and I have always speculated on the back stories of the characters in Fireman Sam - a cartoon set in the Welsh Valleys in the tiny village of Pontypandy. It features the eponymous Fireman Sam, naughty (and fatherless) Norman Price, his mother Dilys and their extended families and co-workers. There's other Fireman Sam fan fiction on the net, but this story sees our characters imagined 10 years on.
Fireman Sam and Norman packet


Dylis sat in the courtroom with silent tears running down her face. She’d always feared it would come to this, but had hoped that her love for her boy would see him right in the end. Norman’s bright red hair had always been her secret pride, a legacy from his father, but now it hung lanky and dull over his face. The boy who, for whatever his faults, had always been full of the spark of life, a fire in his eyes, now stood defeated in the dock waiting to be taken down. Mummy’s little treasure, as she’d called him, didn’t look much of a prize now.

The solicitor hurried past on her way out. She had told Dylis to expect a custodial sentence, but Dyllis had let her hope triumph over sense. He wasn’t a youthful offender anymore, at 19 he’d be treated as an adult.

No one took much notice of Dylis in the long bus ride from the Crown Court in Swansea to the village of Pontypandy. She was just another old woman, clutching a plastic bag, bundled up in an old raincoat to keep out the rain of the valleys. She stared out the rain speckled windows as the bus strained against the steep hill roads.

A string of minor infractions, small fires set here and there, escalating to more serious events over the years had left him with a criminal record. His father may not have ever acknowledged Norman, but he had intervened on his behalf countless times. He’d put out countless fires for his son, literal and metaphorical. He had fixed his mistakes, covered for him, and tried to make things right. But maybe if he could have taken a stronger role, a guiding hand for the boy as Norman had been growing up things would have been different.

But that was never going to happen. She would still remember his shocked expression when she’d told him that the single night they’d shared had had repercussions. She felt foolish for letting him talk her into keeping it a secret for all these years. Maybe if she’d made him face up to his responsibilities then, things would have turned out differently. She could see now that he would never have made the offer of marriage that she’d hoped for, but he could have acknowledged the boy, surely. But she’d wanted to keep him sweet, to see how reasonable she could be and perhaps he’d see, one day, that they could have something more. Most of all, she feared that he’d leave Pontypandy for some bigger place.

Dylis knew she’d been no beauty even in those days. What few charms she’d been born with had faded away as she cared for her mother in her final years in that little flat above the shop while she’d kept that going, too. When her mother had finally slipped away, Dylis began to think of finding a new life for herself. But then there had been Norman on his way.

Norman’s father had been young, much younger than she. He’d just returned from Cardiff and there had been rumours of a failed romance. Apparently she had been some dark eyed beauty who had left for London, a boy from the valleys, no matter how handsome, had not been enough for her. In those long summer days after he’d returned and her mother had died, Dylis had been in the habits of taking long walks in the hills - grieving and planning what she might do next.

She’d found him on his own in an old stone and wood cabin, near the mountain rescue station. He was already a little drunk and had offered her a can of cider she’d remembered selling to him. They drank and chatted quietly as he’d tended the fire in the little hearth. After a little more cider, they’d begun to laugh together - laugh at their own misfortunes. She told him how she wanted to leave the valley, but didn’t know how. He told her about the girl who’d broken his heart. A moment of kindness, as she’d reached out to brush her fingers over his bright red hair, turned quickly to a moment of madness. He’d reached for her then tumbling her down against the old mattress. She’d accepted his fumbled embraces with fervour. She’d let herself hope it might be the beginning of her new life. But his pained apologies the next day had extinguished that spark.

That old cabin had long since burned down. No one had proof, but they’d all suspected Norman. Dylis had always wondered if it had been his father who’d struck the match. He’d been able to get to the scene fast enough.

Her steps from the bus stop to the shop were slow and heavy. Her brother had been minding it for her while she was at court, and he was eager enough to get away from it now. Those villagers who still came in to the shop eyed the Price family with silent pity. “Poor Dilys,” she could almost hear them say “left to raise that handful of a boy on her own with no man at her side.”

The bell on the shop door jangled, and she looked up. He was still handsome, though his red hair had faded a little with age and was now streaked with silver. He was still tall and firm of frame, and the uniform of fire chief suited him. His face with etched with worry. He had always cared for Norman in his own way.

“He’s been sent down for three years. My little treasure in prison.” she sobbed.

“I gave a good report for the sentencing recommendation. He’s a good boy at heart,” he told her.

She stared at him, her accusation plain to read in her eyes.

“Great Fires of London,” he swore. “I did what I could, Dilys.”

“Did you? Even though I never told him you were his father, he always felt close to you. Always wanted to be like you, a fireman. He just wanted your attention. Even what he did this time, burning down the fire station was just to be closer to Fireman Sam.”

Saturday, January 08, 2011

Putting democracy in the cross hairs

I roused from a late afternoon rest to see Twitter declaring the Rep Gabrielle Giffords of Arizona had been assassinated. Then I saw that maybe she wasn't dead. But quite a few other people were. Tragic. Absolutely tragic on so many levels. It need almost go without saying that murder is horrible. And mass murder is vile. But there's something particularly tragic about the slaying of people who were participating in our democracy - as representatives, as aides, as supporters and I dare say as dissenters. Without a doubt among those killed and injured will be someone who disagreed with the politics of Representative Giffords and was there to let her know. To spray bullets on such a gathering is an attack on orderly, peaceful representative democracy. To kill the chance of ordinary people getting close to their representatives. I hope that everyone injured in today's shooting recovers quickly.

But what I also saw on Twitter was quick condemnation of Sarah Palin and rhetoric which borrows heavily from text of Guns n' Ammo. Yep, Ms Palin is certainly one to rouse emotions. I'm not a fan of her approach generally and I disagree with her on pretty much every political stand she takes. But she didn't pull the trigger. Yes, apparently she put Rep Giffords in the cross hairs on her website. In retrospect, it seems more than inappropriate. But a target seat is still a target seat. Everyone uses language like that. Everyone talks about picking off vulnerable opponents and some talk of political hit lists. I don't know how common cross-hairs are for political maps, but I wouldn't be surprised to see flames and bulls-eyes. Maybe we need a slightly different discourse. And we mustn't tolerate anything which goes further than this.

It takes a nut job to actually carry even extreme rhetoric to action. But sadly there's no lack of people who are willing to step up to the plate. From the recent assassination in Pakistan, to the stabbing of Stephen Timms. Call for violent action loud enough and often enough, even in the guise of metaphor, and someone will hear the call.

For sure, politics is a rough sport. And I wouldn't for a second wish to curtail freedom of speech. But surely we can all do more to counter aggressive, violent speech. To shun it. To repudiate it. To not tolerate or cosset it. No matter whom it's targeted against, as it lowers the tone for all of us. And that includes harsh responses, labelling Sarah Palin a murderer and demanding retribution.

And a similar post from a local politician I've met.

Bad haircut

Bad haircut, originally uploaded by London looks.

I know a lot of people give their small children home haircuts. Especially for boys. It's not supposed to be hard.

I have a long history of giving very bad haircuts. Disastrous haircuts. Too short. Uneven. Reminiscent of mange. Most of these unhappy experiments have had my brother as the victim. Once my husband. No one else has been so foolish to come near me when I'm wielding scissors.

When I was pregnant, I made the Vol-in-Law promise that he would never ever let me near my own child's head with shears. It was for the best really, I said.

Buddy was a bald baby and didn't have a lot of hair for a very long time, so it was easy for me to keep my resolution and my husband to keep his promise. The boy's first several haircuts were given by a relative and a brilliant Polish hairdresser who seems to have now moved on from giving haircuts to children.

Last summer, I had a go. We have a hair-clipping set that my brother had left here. And I didn't do a bad job. I didn't do a good job, but it wasn't shameful. Buddy sits quietly enough if you worked quickly.

This past week though, I tried again. And I'm afraid I returned to old form. A very bad haircut indeed.

I think we're going to need professional help.

Update: Hair Repair

After posting this, the Vol-in-Law took Buddy down to the barber's for a little repair job.

"Get your coat on, you're going to get your hair cut, Buddy."

"Where are we going?"

"To the barber shop. A man's going to cut your hair."

"What man?"

"The barber, he's a like a hair doctor. He's going to fix your hair."

"Mommy's not going to cut my hair?"

"No, she's more like the hair butcher."

He came back a little while later like this:

Fresh from the barber's

With gel in his hair. (I'm not too crazy about that) and informing us that only men could cut his hair. He thought a moment before adding. "But not Daddy."

Sunday, January 02, 2011

This woman's work

Scene of the crime, originally uploaded by London looks.

The Vol-in-Law is a squeamish sort of chap. He puts it down to being raised vegetarian. Whatever. Anyway his squeamishness means that corpse removal duty falls to me. And this is a regular job. Our cat Fancy has a respectable kill rate.

Fortunately for me, she leaves beautiful corpses. Or at least intact ones anyway, with maybe just a nibble or two from the tail. I don't really mind picking up these dead critters with a plastic bag and disposing of them. I'm not really freaked out by mice.

But we all have our limits. I mean RATS do freak me out. I screamed like a little kid when I walked out of our back door one day and saw a rat. I'm shuddering in remembrance.

I haven't seen a rat in a long time (thankfully!). But yesterday's New Year's gift of a dead mouse was enormous. It was really big. It was the size of a hamster. And as far as I'm concerned, hamster is just a little too close to rat. But I womanned up and dealt with it.

Buddy, isn't so squeamish. "I like it when Fancy kills a mouse," he said yesterday. But he did call his dad to deal with the thing.

"You need to call your mom," he said. "Mouse disposal is woman's work."

Buddy at three and a half is starting to be aware of gender distinctions and the difference between girls and boys. He questioned his father over what women did (rodent removal) and what did boys and men do? What sort of animal did males deal with?

"Your mother deals with the small animals. But if we see any wolves, it will be our job to get rid of it."

Yes. I can see that. Wolves roaming the streets of London. Not this century. (Though I note that he said nothing of foxes which are a regularly seen beastie.)

But the boy was excited and started planning his toolkit. "We need knives and hammers and swords!" he exclaimed.