Making marmalade and longing for Seville

I have been making marmalade over the last couple of weeks. Everybody’s doing it, it seems. Over the last few years, this seasonal rite of the British kitchen has been the subject of many articles in national newspapers.

Despite reports that marmalade consumption in the UK is in decline (kids today can’t handle the bitter aspect of its taste, they say) it feels as if we’re all filling up our jute bags at the greengrocer with Seville oranges.


Making marmalade seems to chime with the culture of ‘Keep calm and carry on’. It fits well with the nostalgic longing for a spirit of pulling-together in a time of austerity – the love of today’s metropolitan middle classes all for things homemade, crafty and cosy.

A useful example of this cultural trend is found in the form of the Labour and Wait homeware/hardware shop on currently trendy Redchurch Street in east London.

The Seville orange season is brief, but coming in January/February rather well timed. The other afternoon, as I made another batch of marmalade, the weather outside was bitterly cold. But the heavenly citrus aroma of oranges transported me to their nominal place of origin: Seville.

I found myself pining for the place — dreaming of escape from the dispiriting effects of the northern-European winter. And right now – early February – is arguably the best time to visit Seville, where the temperature is spring-like, the sun shines much of the time (the city gets unbearably hot later in the year) and crowds are absent.

Nothing beats sitting in the gardens of the Reales Alcazares (Seville’s royal palace) on a February morning, among the date palms and fountains, gazing up at a blue sky.

In Seville at this time of year, the oranges hang from trees like luminous globes – a quite magical sight.

Back in cold, rainy England, making your own marmalade makes perfect sense simply because the home-made stuff is way better than anything you’ll ever get to buy in the shops. Frank Cooper’s doesn’t come close.


I’d like to pretend that my marmalade recipe was handed down to me across the generations, but in truth it was culled from a recipe I came across in Country Living magazine about ten years ago.

Before that, I would always take a jar of my mother’s marmalade back to London with me after a weekend visit to my parents.

When my mother died of cancer, I had to start making marmalade myself. And whenever I do, I think of her and the example that her generation set – those who grew up during the second world war and who experienced the culture of ‘keep calm and carry on’ for real and carried its values with them for the rest of their lives.

I say it again: they were an example to us.

The joy of plums

It seems as if we’ve been blessed with quite a few bumper plum seasons in a row. Or is it my imagination?

The other weekend I visited my dad, who has a large garden on the outskirts of Cambridge. There is one particular tree in the garden that I’ve known since I was a boy, way back when Marc Bolan was funking up Top of the Pops.

This tree has borne Victoria plums faithfully for at least 35 years, though it is only since my mother’s death eight years ago that I have truly come to appreciate it, for my weekend visits now entail cooking Sunday lunch. And, come August, that means making plum crumble.

Last weekend I wandered down to that tree and found its branches hanging down, laden with big bunches of ripe plums. The ground beneath was strewn with many windfalls, which were being enjoyed by opportunistic wasps.

I wonder how many more years this tree will continue to produce fruit. Its trunk has large holes in certain places, yet despite the ravages of age it carries on doggedly, faithfully producing prodigious quantities of fruit.

Such dependability is rare in this world. I was struck with a simple sense of wonder at this annual harvest, a symbol of continuity, and felt it deserved a picture.

Ripe Victoria plums are a sight to behold. In their oval, deep-roseate splendour, they are a most attractive fruit. To hold a ripe Victoria plum in the hand, to feel its flesh – firm yet yielding – is a sensory delight.

And then the taste of its sweet flesh: utterly delicious, whether raw with that thrilling tart kick from the skin, or stewed, or used as ingredients in a crumble (pictured, one I ate earlier).

Not until I started cooking did I truly appreciate that fruit, and marvel at how such flavour could come up out of the Cambridge clay.

Consumed by the 2011 London riots

Well now, I can’t have a blog and not mention the riots and looting that have overtaken parts of London and elsewhere in the past week.

It is of course the primary topic of conversation, obsessing our private lives, as Auden would have said. On Monday of this week, there was a definite whiff of Armageddon in the air. I have never felt that (smelt that) before.

Fortunately, my own bit of north London (N8) pretty much escaped any unrest. The only casualty seems to have been the local Blockbuster. Crouch End is disgustingly middle-class (as Greg Dyke would say): all Bugaboos and bakers selling sourdough bread.

Sickened and alarmed like any other rational person, yesterday I found myself jotting down aspects that might be behind the rioting and looting. I soon had a pretty long list, covering everything from bad parenting (inc. absent fathers) and educational failure to stop-and-search and the welfare ghetto.

Here’s one little aspect.

I spend too much of my working life as a freelance copy-editor working on consumer magazines that pump out a never-ending stream of retail good for their readers to drool over.

This is the “must have” era. “Must-have” is the hackneyed phrase (now banned on the better magazine and newspaper subbing desks) that recurs again and again, along with other phrases such as “Bag one of these…” and “It’s a steal”. The language is notable.

Magazines routinely feature designer clothes from their major advertisers that are way beyond the spending power of the vast majority of their readers.

So much so-called journalism, sadly, is merely extended marketing. The tail wags the dog.

Possession of gadgets, dangled temptingly before consumers’ eyes, is part of culture where possession of “stuff” denotes cool, makes you belong, gives you, possibly, some sense of status.

I remember one day, in the late 1990s when Blair was still in his pomp, when I walked into a branch of Carphone Warehouse. I had just turned freelance and realized that having a mobile phone would be essential for my work.

Walking into that store, I was struck by the buzz inside: the sense of excitement among the customers was palpable. I just couldn’t understand it. How could the acquisition of a mobile phone be so thrilling?

This fetishisation of electronic gadgetry just got bigger and bigger. And then came along smartphones (full disclosure: I use an iPhone – a superb tool), and it went it a whole new phase.

And then, as well, there is the “bling” culture (feel free to discuss this topic amongst yourselves), the attitude of “get rich or die trying” that not so implicitly encourages the young and marginalised into crime as a short cut to wealth.

Alongside this empty materialism is the constant ramping-up of status anxiety. Call me Karl Marx, but all those Porsches and Range Rover Vogues on the streets of London do not encourage the feeling that “we are all in this together”.

Perhaps the Swedes have the right idea. Why don’t they have riots? Because Swedish society is more balanced and less blatantly unequal than ours.

In Sweden they have the concept of “lagom”, which means, roughly, “just the right amount”. It is, I hear, a key feature of the national psyche. It embodies a certain idea of the values of moderation, in opposition to (and I quote Wikipedia) “the hoarding extremes of consumerism”.

It may seem a recipe for dull conformity but right now it feels like a better alternative to a consumer culture that promotes and encourages atavistic acquisition: MUST HAVE!

I was struck by something I heard on the radio today. The father of a 16-year-old accused on burglary in the riots. He described what he saw as the kids’ attitude: “They look at things and go, I want it and I’m gonna have it. And they’ll do whatever they can to get it.”

When asked why his son had got involved, the father replied: “Sheer boredom. Because there’s nothing for the kids to do.”

For many bored adolescent kids, taking part in these riots will have unquestionably been a massive adrenalin kick: a video game come alive, a brief escape from marginalised anonymity; a chance, somehow, to assert themselves.

A sad reflection on the state of English society.

TS Eliot, Wilfred Owen and the journey towards poetry

Everyone needs an editor, commented a friend the other day, having read my first couple of posts to this blog. I am used to candour from this particular individual, but I must admit, his comment took me down a peg or two.

And there was I, an experienced sub-editor, thinking I didn’t have much to learn after all those years of structuring and enlivening the woefully turgid efforts of many a hack writer.

He was right, annoyingly.

I remember reading some years ago a reported comment from someone who had been involved with the publication of Jeffrey Archer’s thrillers. The anonymous publishing bod had commented that taking Archer’s stories from manuscript into a form truly fit for public consumption was a long journey towards literacy, or some such words. I remember chuckling to myself, in a slightly snobby way.

Yet the greatest writers have been helped by a second pair of eyes cast over their work. The best example I can immediately think of is also one of the most celebrated.

Ezra Pound’s editorial efforts so transformed TS Eliot’s poem The Waste Land (1922), the most famous piece of 20th century poetry in English, to the extent that Eliot dedicated the poem to his fellow poet, referring to him as “il miglior fabbro” (the better craftsman).

You can see this for yourself if you purchase Faber’s remarkable new Waste Land App – as good a reason as any to own an iPad – which contains facsimiles of Eliot’s manuscript with Pound’s handwritten edits.

The App brings TS Eliot’s famously baffling poem into the 21st century, so to speak, with interactive notes, interviews, commentary and a number of readings.

With its myriad allusions to everything from Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde to Spenser’s Prothalamion, The Waste Land is ripe for digital treatment, and sure enough there are plenty of hyperlinked annotations to the poem’s often-obscure language and references.

You can watch a filmed performance of the entire poem by Fiona Shaw (not my cup of tea – why won’t actors just let the words speak for themselves?), as well as TS Eliot himself reading the first section (an acquired taste, perhaps; isn’t he a bit, well, monotonous?), plus recitations by Ted Hughes, Viggo Mortensen and Alec Guinness. For me, Guinness has the edge. He brings The Waste Land alive with the force of revelation.

It sells for under a tenner. That feels like great value for money.

I studied The Waste Land at school. I remember our young English teacher, Sidney Child, humorously chiding my classmate, Hugh McLachlan, for forever being on the hunt for “the meaning” of the poem (it seemed a reasonable aspiration to me at the time).

Sid, I seem to remember, encouraged us not to try to discover some pre-existing kernel of meaning at the centre of the work, not to try to “decode” the poem, but to see our exploration of its qualities more as a process of unravelling, like peeling away layers of an onion (the analogy was meant to be taken with a pinch of salt). Do not expect to unravel the meaning in the middle.

Not bad advice. I think it was TS Eliot himself who said that genuine poetry can communicate before it is understood.

Reading a great poem such as The Waste Land puts one in mind of Walter Pater’s famous saying that all art aspires towards the condition of music.

The Romantic poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge had a simple little definition of poetry as the “best words in their best order“.

To see that process in action, look at Wilfred Owen’s Anthem for Doomed Youth, mentioned in my last post.

What passing-bells for these who die as cattle?
Only the monstrous anger of the guns.
Only the stuttering rifles’ rapid rattle
Can patter out their hasty orisons.
No mockeries now for them; no prayers nor bells;
Nor any voice of mourning save the choirs, –
The shrill, demented choirs of wailing shells;
And bugles calling for them from sad shires.
What candles may be held to speed them all?
Not in the hands of boys but in their eyes
Shall shine the holy glimmers of goodbyes.
The pallor of girls’ brows shall be their pall;
Their flowers the tenderness of patient minds,
And each slow dusk a drawing-down of blinds.

The genesis of this poem is another example of a great poetic partnership.

War poet Wilfred Owen

The poem took shape while Owen was convalescing at Craiglockhart war hospital near Edinburgh in 1917. He had been sent there from the Western Front after he had begun to show signs of shellshock. He had seen plenty of action, which apparently included three days stuck in a shellhole with the dismembered remains of a fellow officer for company.

At Craiglockhart, Owen was encouraged to write poetry by his forward-thinking doctor. By good fortune, his fellow poet Siegfried Sassoon had also had been been sent to Craiglockhart after publicly protesting that the country’s war aims had become those of “aggression and conquest”.

Sending Sassoon to Craiglockhart is generally viewed as the authorities’ way of getting him out of the way.

Sassoon was already known as a poet (unlike Owen) and showed a keen interest in Owen’s poems.

Owen showed Sassoon the drafts of Anthem for Doomed Youth. These drafts are held today by the British Library in London. Click here for an example.

Sassoon helped Owen mould the poem into its finished form. It was Sassoon who provided the word ‘Anthem’ for the title, according to Owen “just what I meant it to be”.

Besides Sassoon’s suggestions, one can also see how Owen gradually felt his way towards finding the “best words in their best order”.

Just take the first line, one of the great opening lines in British poetry:

What passing bells for these who die as cattle

This opening line started out as:

What minute-bells for these who die so fast?

Then he changed it to:

What passing-bells for these who die so fast?

Then he changed it to:

What passing-bells for you who die in herds?

Then he changed it to:

What passing-bells for these dumb-dying cattle?

And finally, he arrived at:

What passing-bells for these who die as cattle?

Anthem is a poem written in iambic pentameter, which is to say that the lines have five pairs of syllables: the first syllable is stressed, the second unstressed: da DUM da DUM da DUM da DUM da DUM. Each of these pairs is a unit known as an iamb, a particular type of metrical foot.

Iambic pentameter is sometimes referred to as the rhythm of English speech, a kind of heartbeat rhythm. The rhythm of life itself, you might argue.

Bearing this in mind, it is interesting to look at the evolution of the first line of Anthem for Doomed Youth.

Take the first three drafts of this line.

Each conforms to the heartbeat rhythm of iambic pentameter: five sets of iambs.

Da-DUM da-DUM da-DUM da-DUM da-DUM.

Draft 1: What PASS ing BELLS for THESE who DIE in HERDS
Draft 2: What PASS ing BELLS for YOU who DIE so FAST
Draft 3: WHAT PASS ing BELLS for YOU who DIE in HERDS

But then in the fourth draft comes that word CATTLE.

“What passing-bells for these dumb-dying cattle?”

It’s the word that sounds right, that feels right in the poet’s mind as he feels towards the best words in the best order.

The fourth draft of this opening line introduces another change: the phrase “DUMB-DYING”.

But Owen rejects this phrase. It tries to pack too much in; it sounds rather clunky.

He loses the phrase and reintroduces the words “who die as” in the fifth and final draft:

“What passing-bells for these who die as cattle?”

For me, the c of cattle is one of the hardest c’s in English poetry. It is deployed with maximum, jolting effect at the very end of the line.

You can hear anger in that word.

In doing so, Owen departs from the standard ten-syllable flow of iambic pentameter. This line now has eleven syllables:

What PASS ing BELLS for THESE who DIE as CAT tle?

In this line reflecting on mass slaughter, he arrests the steady heartbeat of the metre.

How much was this thought through, how much poetic instinct, I wonder.

Hear Kenneth Branagh reading the poem on this YouTube clip.

Thoughts of Vera Brittain and Testament of Youth on the South Downs

View towards Keymer on the South Downs

One of the more memorable lines from Blackadder Goes Forth, the BBC comedy series set against the backdrop of the Western Front and life in the trenches, was uttered by the inimitable Rik Mayall, playing the arrogant, over-the-top flying-ace Lord Flashheart:

“Just because I can give multiple orgasms to the furniture just by sitting on it, doesn’t mean that I’m not sick of this damn war: the blood, the noise, the endless poetry.”

(See it on this YouTube clip.)

The endless poetry. There was indeed a hell of a lot of poetry written during the First World War. Today, other forms of communication are more popular. But back then, particularly for the educated officer class, poetry had a currency that it has since lost.

Newspapers of the time were full of poems about the war – some of them horribly jingoistic. Yet today it is hard to think of the Great War for any length of time without at some point being reminded of the outstanding poetry that came out of it, by Siegfried Sassoon and Wilfred Owen in particular. That terrible war has cast a long shadow, and poetry has been integral in the keeping that conflict present in the popular imagination.

The period’s high water mark, for this reader at least, is Wilfred Owen’s ‘Anthem for Doomed Youth’, which begins one of the most memorable opening lines in English poetry: “What passing bells for these who die as cattle?”

But what has this to do with the stitched-together panorama of the South Downs at the top of this post?

The photograph is a view northeast towards the West Sussex village of Keymer. I took the picture (three pictures in fact, fused together inexpertly in Photoshop) the other weekend on a walk along the Downs in glorious sunshine from Hassocks by way of the Devil’s Dyke to Upper Beeding.

By coincidence, I have recently been watching the DVD of the BBC’s 1979 dramatisation of Vera Brittain’s autobiographical Testament of Youth. I vividly remember watching this mini-series when it was first broadcast: it helped shape my perception of the First World War in no small measure.

It is a superb adaptation with fine performances, particularly from Cheryl Campbell as Vera Brittain, a series that makes brilliantly effective use of judiciously selected poetry of the period, read as voiceover by the actor Gary Watson.

At the same time, I have been reading the book on which the series was based. Fittingly subtitled on the cover, “a haunting elegy for a lost generation”, the heart of the memoir details Brittain’s experience of the First World War, during which she worked as a VAD nurse and endured the deaths of first her fiancé and later her brother, as well as two of their closest friends.

Vera Brittain’s fiancé was a brilliant young man achiever called Roland Leighton, who tragically died in the trenches in December 1915, just days before he was due to return on leave to Britain and be reunited with Vera. Which brings us to the South Downs.

In her memoir, Brittain relates how she travelled from Brighton to Keymer soon after her fiancé’s death to visit Leighton’s grieving parents, who were renting a cottage in the West Sussex village on the edge of the Downs.

She arrived with grim timing, to find the parents gazing on their deceased son’s blood-soaked army kit, which had just been returned to them by the army, standard practice apparently.

Vera Brittain reported in a letter to her brother:

“Everything was damp & worn and simply caked with mud… All the sepulchres and catacombs of Rome could not make me realise mortality and decay and corruption as vividly as did the smell of those clothes.”

She added:

“If you had been [there] you would have been overwhelmed by the horror of war without its glory.”

Up there on the South Downs, I thought of Roland Leighton and Vera Brittain. The thought of such terrible times and such unspeakable loss provided a poignant counterpoint to the simple pleasure of our walk from the station at Hassocks, up Wolstenbury Hill and along the Downs, delighting all the while in a landscape of such beauty.

In January 1915, as Vera Brittain went to visit her late fiancé’s parents, she was struck by the disjuncture between the gentle Sussex landscape and the wider horror that had now engulfed her world.

“In the damp lanes between Hassocks and Keymer the birds sang loudly. How I hated them as I walked back to the station one late afternoon, when a red sunset turned the puddles on the road into gleaming pools of blood, and a new horror of mud and death darkened my mind with its dreadful obsession. Roland, I reflected bitterly, was now part of the corrupt clay into which war had transformed the fertile soil of France; he would never again know the smell of a wet evening in early spring.”

Had history taken a different turn, you could imagine that Roland Leighton might have been inspired by the natural beauty we enjoyed that Saturday to pen some verse.

Leighton would never return home, but he did write one truly memorable poem while on the Western Front, which was discovered after his death in an exercise book in his haversack. Written a month before his death, it is a very different kind of poem to those of Owen and Sassoon – an intimate, tender piece of verse.

The poem is used twice in the BBC’s dramatisation of Testament of Youth to powerful effect. Addressing Vera, Leighton foresees his death, and in imagining his fiancé’s future life without him, sets her free; gives his blessing to her future without him.

Hedauville, November 1915

The sunshine on the long white road
That ribboned down the hill,
The velvet clematis that clung
Around your window-sill
Are waiting for you still.
Again the shadowed pool shall break
In dimples at your feet,
And when the thrush sings in your wood,
Unknowing you may meet
Another stranger, sweet.
And if he is not quite so old
As the boy you used to know,
And less proud, too, and worthier,
You may not let him go –
(And daisies are truer than passion-flowers)
It will be better so.

It’s that poignant parenthetical line, “(And daisies are truer than passion-flowers)” that makes lifts the poem so gracefully. It is a line that intrigued me when I first watched Testament of Youth on TV as a 15-year-old and still does so today.

Her experiences during the Great War led Vera Brittain to become a committed pacifist. Sadly, the “war to end all wars” was anything but. And the profound mistakes made in its aftermath would help sow the seeds for the Second World War.

By that time, Brittain was a member of the Peace Pledge Union and would become a vociferous critic of area bombing by the Allies, a view which one can imagine did not win her many friends.

She argued that there was no evidence that saturation bombing would shorten the war, and that the policy amounted to collective punishment of the German people, which she felt unjust.

Truly, a remarkable woman.

More about ‘Testament of Youth’, both the book and TV series, in future posts.

Rupert Murdoch in London

With Rupert Murdoch in the capital attempting to manage the fabulously escalating scandal afflicting his media empire, I came across a fascinating entry on the BBC blog of Adam Curtis, the producer who brought us the documentary series The Power of Nightmares and The Century of the Self.

The ironically titled ‘Rupert Murdoch: A Portrait of Satan’ draws heavily on the BBC’s archive to build an absorbing picture both of the media mogul’s rise to power and his modus operandi. It was interesting to be reminded of something that now feels like ancient history: how Murdoch’s papers in Australia campaigned against Prime Minister Gough Whitlam in the 1975 Australian election, a campaign that included a significant distortion of unemployment figures. The news pages of the Murdoch papers, in the words of a former political correspondent of The Australian, Paul Kelly, were “to a certain extent turned over almost as propaganda organs of the papers’ editorial line.”

In the past, Murdoch has at times portrayed himself as a man fighting against supposed forces of elitism. It is interesting to be reminded of the very comfortable start in life the media tycoon enjoyed: the son of a regional newspaper magnate in Melbourne, he completed his formal education at Worcester College, Oxford, not long after paying his dues as a £10 a week sub-editor on the Daily Express while, apparently, living at the Savoy hotel. Not bad digs for a lowly hack. Well, they do say that it’s not where you come from but where you’re at that matters.

Anyway, I heartily recommend reading/watching Curtis’s piece of work: ‘Rupert Murdoch: A Portrait of Satan’

Quintessence of Dust – a ragbag of thoughts and observations